Quartet – 2012

Director Dustin Hoffman
Starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon
Screenplay Ronald Harwood

There is a moment early on in Quartet when Wilf, who is played with a casual brilliance by Billy Connolly, comes upon a fellow boarder at Beecham house while on his morning walk.  The man is clearly struggling with his instrument, but really, he is struggling in general.  He looks up to Wilf and his face goes from extreme frustration, to apprehension at being caught in what could be an embarrassing situation.   Wilf slowly raises his hand to the man.  From that hand emerges a thumb of appreciation.  The man smiles and goes at it once more.  That picture of grace is at the heart of Quartet.

Beecham house is an approximation of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a retirement home predominately for gifted musicians, originally conceived by Giuseppe Verdi.  It is a beautiful home, in the same manner of the home from Downton Abbey.   It’s beauty is eloquently displayed with casual grace of a camera wandering from place to place, showing music coming from everywhere.  It all fits together seamlessly and gives an elegance and respect to a process of life that often robs people of both.

Wilf has a good thing going.  Along with his friends Reg (Courtenay) and Cissy (Collins), they spend their days listening to their recordings, lecturing high school students and, in Wilf’s case, pissing wherever he gets the urge.  Into this serene setting comes Jean (Smith), who has arrived in preparation for hip replacement surgery.  Her arrival sets everything on edge, because at one time Jean had been married to Reg, and that ended poorly.

Courtenay, an actor of much renown I had not even pondered since his Oscar nominated performance in The Dresser, is a measure of dignity here, in perfect contrast to Connelly.   He plays Reg as a man of considerable pride that is easily ruffled.  Beyond that, it is clear that his feelings for his ex-wife are considerably and resonantly mixed.

Jean herself is torn up about the prospect of seeing Reg again.  She trained herself on what to say, but she is so moved that she says it many times in a row.  It is a difficult thing to go from dignified to babbling.  It’s not something I thought I would ever see Smith do, but she does it well.

Collins plays Cissy as the kind one who is not so slowly losing her marbles.  She has an open heart to go with her wandering mind.  Her portrayal is indicative of the touch that Hoffman uses with this cast.  No one here is a caricature, even if their characters are set up by plot to be so.  The freedom to explore the range of emotions that one might in their situation.  The scepter of the end looming so close while life still springs from their veins in the form of music.

Hoffman’s acting has been increasingly erratic since his last great performance in Rain Man.  It has gotten to the point where I have avoided movies that feature him because he’s embarrassing to watch in crap like The Fockers movies.  There is a longing for the actor who was more an observer of the scene around him rather than the most obnoxious little man in the room.

In Quartet, he may have found his place once more.  Director Hoffman shows himself a keen observer of humanity.  His lens provides an honest viewpoint, but also a kind one.  It is not a surprise to me that Little Big Man‘s Jack Crabb is the same person behind this beautiful and gentle film.  That said, there are issues with the film.  The story jumps from crisis to crisis, with no real resolution.  At one point the concern is financial, the next we have old love and then we see stage fright.  None of the issues gets a complete resolve before moving on to the next.  Some of this is subtly implied and one of the crisis is handled off screen.  Over all, though, it’s a bit jarring to find something that took years to build up to be settled with a hand holding.

This is really just quibbling, however.  Quartet is a beautiful film that is worth watching.  Connolly, Collins, Courtenay and Smith all give incredible performances, and Hoffman seems to have found new life.

(**** out of *****)

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