Review: Quartet


Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith in Quartet

If there really is a place like Beecham House, I want to go to there someday. In the Dustin Hoffman-directed film Quartet, the site is a home for retired classical music performers and opera singers. As the main four characters wander about the beautiful grounds, a solo clarinetist plays, or a string quartet performs in a gazebo. How wonderful would it be to be surrounded by amazing instrumentalists constantly playing music (well)? It seems like a slice of heaven to me. The movie itself, however? Not so much.

The plot is a bit of a muddle, but here goes: Flamboyant Cedric (Michael Gambon, wearing Dumbledore-esque caftans) is putting on the home's annual concert, which, from the number of times he asserts that the home could be closed if the event is not a success, I infer is a fundraiser. It's reminiscent of the classic-musical plotline where the gang would put on a show to save a farm (Summer Stock, anyone?).

A trio of friends -- serious Reginald (Tom Courtenay, TV's Little Dorrit), naughty Wilf (Billy Connolly, Mrs. Brown and Brave), and dotty Cissy (Pauline Collins, Albert Nobbs) -- sit around reminiscing about the days when they once sang together in Rigoletto. Then the fourth of their quartet moves into the home. Jean (Maggie Smith) was the diva of the group and once had an ill-fated romance with Reg. Cedric wants them to perform the quartet from Rigoletto at the annual concert, but Jean is wary.

The soundtrack for Quartet is full of the works of composer Verdi (or as I swear I heard Dame Maggie Smith mispronounce, "Verday"), as his music is the theme for the concert... although some Gilbert & Sullivan (Mikado!) and Haydn music gets thrown in. Cissy has headphones on for most of her scenes, as she has the recording of their past Rigoletto performance on constant repeat. Reg gives lectures to local students and talks to them about how opera used to be for everyone, and now it's only for those who can afford to see it.

Which brings me around to say that this movie isn't for everyone, although I think my opera-fan father -- or anyone who might recognize some of the real-life musicians in the supporting cast -- might enjoy some elements of it. Quartet lags and stutters, with weird editing slowing it down and the main characters never getting fully fleshed out. There are continuity issues, as well; at one point a female character is shown in the audience watching herself onstage, and I don't think she has a twin.

It seems ridiculous to say my favorite thing about this movie was the ending, but I do love that the end credits show photos of cast members as they appear in Quartet alongside how they once appeared onstage or in performance. It's a nice touch to an otherwise flimsy film.