I’ve criticized my fair share of movies for being both simplistic and unoriginal. Now we have “Quartet,” a film that can accurately be described using both those words. And yet, it’s also a charming, delightful, intelligent, and observant human comedy, the best of its kind since “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” Why would I be so forgiving of “Quartet” and not of others like it? Perhaps I too often forget that not all films have to be labyrinthine and multilayered in order to work. Perhaps it has to do with my limited understanding of life itself; sometimes, I need to be reminded that it isn’t always as complicated as some movies make it out to be. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of being in the right mood. Whatever the case, this is a thoroughly disarming, quietly poignant movie that says what most of us already know with a lot of humor, a little sadness, and a great deal of warmth.
Its greatest achievement, I would argue, is that it shows more interest in the people than in the plot. Both Ronald Harwood, whose script was adapted from his own stage play, and Dustin Hoffman, who makes his directorial debut, have a real fondness for the main characters, who are all closely examined. They’re not one-note typecasts, although they might initially come off that way; the further along the film goes, the more authentic they seem until at last they’re utterly, beautifully human. They all have their annoying quirks, but by the end, you can’t help but like them. And although not everyone (myself included) will be able to relate to them now, almost all of us will at some point in the future. This isn’t to suggest that the film is bleak. It’s merely honest and resigned.
The film is set in Beecham House, a retirement home in the English countryside that caters specifically to elderly musicians and singers. Though not in their prime, all the residents continue to do what they once did professionally to the best of their ability. With some, it’s obvious that they do it because they genuinely love it. With others, one gets the sense that they’re desperately clinging to the one thing they have left. We meet Reg Paget (Tom Coutrenay), Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins), and Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), all former opera singers. They have varying dispositions. Reg is rather reserved and scholarly, while Wilf is a cheeky sort with an insatiable appetite for ladies both young and old. It’s thought that the latter’s behavior was caused by his recent stroke, which shut off his social filter. Cissy, who’s in some intermediate stage of dementia, is unquestionably the happiest person in the film, for she knows that she has value as a person.
It isn’t long before Beecham House gains a resident. This would be Reg’s ex-wife, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), at one time a renowned soprano. She’s not happy about being there. She’s even less happy about the ravages of old age, one of which is a bad hip that needs to be replaced. She would like to bury the hatchet with Reg, although it will take some time for him to come around, as he still harbors bitter resentment. Jean will herself become resentful when it’s suggested that she join Reg, Cissy, and Wilf to perform the quartet from “Rigoletto,” which will be a part of Beecham House’s annual birthday concert for Giuseppe Verdi. They have all performed this quartet in the past; Cissy even has the cast recording of the performance they starred in, and she frequently listens to in on her Discman. Nevertheless, Jean initially refuses to even consider the idea.
To an extent, Jean’s animosity is understandable. Apart from the fact that she’s once again in the company of Reg, the man she hurt deeply for the sake of advancing her career, she’s being asked to use her voice in a way that will be exceedingly difficult at this stage of her life. It doesn’t seem like there’s much of anything her body will allow her to do; even something simple as walking has become a hassle. No one understands the indignity of getting older better than Wilf, who hates that he now has to pee constantly (true to his personality, he will go in a bush in broad daylight rather than excuse himself to the nearest restroom). However, he also knows that there’s nothing he can do about it, so he might as well accept it. He suggests Jean do the same – albeit, in a way that’s exceedingly blunt. Cissy, in spite of her slipping state of mind, cheerfully recalls Bette Davis’ now-famous quote, “Old age ain’t for sissies.”
Rounding out the cast are Michael Gambon as the deliciously pompous Cedric Livingstone, a man who believes himself to be more important than he actually is, and real-life mezzo-soprano Dame Gwyneth Jones as Ann Langley, a diva who continues to have a rivalry with Jean. All the principal players, who each had actual careers in either music or theater, are saluted during the end credits, when vintage photographs appear alongside their current portraits. It was a subtle yet effective way for Hoffman to show respect, not just for the performers but also for their art. Perhaps this is because Hoffman is himself a stage veteran. Whatever the case, he has fashioned “Quartet” into a loveable movie. No, the themes and general plot are not especially original. But it works well with its conventions, and it cares about its characters. That’s precisely why the audience is able to care, too.