“You must understand, I was someone once.”
Quartet is set in Beecham House, a retirement home for gifted musicians situated in the idyllic English countryside, and boasts an all-star British cast including Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Sheridan Smith, Trevor Peacock, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and the incomparable Maggie Smith, all being directed under the eyes of the legendary Dustin Hoffman. Moronically when I hear or read the words ‘All star British cast” it inevitably conjures up an image of Sunday afternoons watching Richard Curtis movies loaded with tediously unoriginal montages, some unnecessary foul language, cringe-worthy innuendos, never-ending romance laden dialogue and the odd bout of average humour. Well strike Curtis from the equation and you pretty much have the ingredients that compose (no pun intended) the main bulk of Quartet. But none of the above should be taken in a negative manner as Quartet delivers on almost every level it presumably intended, creating a sweet, tender movie full of sentimentality which makes it extremely hard not to like.
The titular Quartet in question is made up of Connolly, Courtenay, Collins and Maggie Smith. The latter being the newest member of Beecham House and one, while initially greeted by applause from her fellow residents, not without her own controversies. She plays Jean Horton, a one time world class (and evidently high maintenance) Operatic singer who moves into the retirement home joining old friends and colleagues Wilfred (Connolly), Cissy (Collins) and Reg (Courtenay). The four in their younger days had performed together Verdi’s Rigoletto to great appraisal and with the annual Gala Concert coming up in honour of Verdi’s birthday, they are persuaded to join forces once again to recreate the magic of their original performance. There’s only one problem, Reg doesn’t want to speak to Jean on account that she broke her marriage vows and cheated on him many years ago. Oh I forgot to mention their marriage didn’t I? After a short spell of evasion, Reg finally forgives Jean and he, Wilf and Cissy try to talk Jean into performing with them once again. Jean reluctantly agrees and throughout their difficult task of rehearsals, Jean and Reg grow close again, eventually leading up to the big night where they obviously tear the house down.
But guess what? Although we hear them, we don’t actually get to see them tearing the house down which was a little bit of a letdown. Another flaw is the idea that the Gala Concert performance will help fund the running of Beecham House for the next year or two. This is touched upon only once or twice early on then barely mentioned, rendering it’s importance as a plot device pretty much useless. There’s a scene where a resident falls ill and is taken away by paramedics but is never even talked of again. Reg apparently only moved in to help look after Wilf and other than waiting on a new hip, we never find out why Jean needs to be in a retirement home. Also I would’ve liked to see more of Sheridan Smith’s Dr. Cogan.
So Quartet isn’t exactly full of shocks in terms of where the story goes. It’s fairly predictable but despite this, the movie didn’t feel tiresome and for the most part I genuinely felt compassion and empathy for the characters regardless of the monumental age gap. That has to go down to the writing and the acting. Maggie Smith is her usual flawless self, this time showing a vulnerable side to her that we don’t often see. When Billy Connolly’s character Wilf (a stroke victim) jovially exclaims to Pauline Collins character Cissy (Alzheimer’s) during breakfast that she has “the nicest tits I have ever seen in my life”, I knew this was something different and that I would probably really enjoy it. In fact Billy Connolly tends to steal most of the movie mainly due to his inappropriate, boyish behaviour and rude comments, all of which are received with communal laughter by the recipients. Michael Gambon also provides a ton of laughs as the passionate yet irritable ring leader of the Gala. His unkind comments to his players is a blatant attempt to fuel his own ego even though nobody really takes him that seriously. Pauline Collins is superb as soft spoken and gentle hearted Cissy, who is on level with Connolly in terms of not acting her age. But the real story doesn’t lie with Connolly’s light hearted, casual take on his life now or even ditzy Cissy’s comical attempt at remaining functional, it lies with Reg and Jean, and their inherent love for each other or in actual fact their struggle to re-find that love that never ceased to exist.
I know what you’re thinking. A love story about lonely pensioners? Well think again. There’s certainly more to this than meets the eye with various prophetic conclusions to be taken away. While the movie does prey on the age of it’s characters, the moral hidden somewhere beneath applies to all ages; make the most of the life you have and love the one’s you share it with. Quartet won’t be for everyone with many probably writing it off from the outset purely for it’s mundane sounding premise, but the actors make this movie better than it should’ve been and are a joy to watch. A genuinely surprising gem that may have you reaching for your tissues come the end credits.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter