Quartet review

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Review Paul Martinovic 2 Jan 2013 - 12:30

Dustin Hoffman turns to directing for the national-treasure laden comedy drama, Quartet. Here's Paul's review...

Cinema is for teenagers, is the perceived wisdom: hence the steady stream of superheroes, horror, sex-coms and fighting robots we get in our multiplexes all year round. There does seem to be something of a paradigm shift in the air, however, particularly with British cinema – after the huge success of the likes of The King’s Speech and, particularly, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel among notably older demographics, it seems that marketers are waking up to the fact that the elder generation are where the cinema cash is currently at.

The kids are too busy watching NetTubes on their iBoxes and downloading illegal FlickTorrents to deign to ever turn up at a cinema, whereas there are people of a certain age for whom going for a night out at the pictures is still actually demonstrably a thing. I’ve seen it first hand: I went to a packed screening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in Brighton not long ago where my presence brought the room’s average age down by about 50 years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Skyfall’s recent astronomic box office total wasn’t at least partly propelled by appealing to punters old enough to be Roger Moore’s parents.

It’s with this in mind that I can confidently predict Quartet will be very successful: with a cast that rivals The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and The Expendables 2 for gotta-catch-‘em all crinkly ensembles, as well as the added novelty of being the directorial debut of a bona fide megastar in Dustin Hoffman,  the pedigree couldn’t be better, and fans of anyone involved – elder or otherwise - are unlikely to be disappointed.

It’s somewhat appropriate that the main selling point of Quartet should be its prestige cast, as it is very much a film (and, originally, a play by The Pianist and The Diving Bell And The Butterfly scribe Ronald Harwood) about the twilight years of a career in the arts, and how those accustomed to life in the spotlight respond once they start being ushered towards declining health and irrelevancy.

Three former members of a legendary vocal quartet – the dignified, sensitive Reggie (Tom Courtenay), the mischievous, sex-mad Wilf (Billy Connolly), and the dotty Cissy (Pauline Collins) – are seeing out their wilderness years at a facility for retired musicians, amusing themselves variously by teaching Opera 101 classes to impressionable youths (Reggie), tirelessly harassing the nurses (Wilf), and preparing for a benefit concert overseen by the stupefyingly pompous Cedric (Michael Gambon).

Their steady routine is interrupted when Jean (Maggie Smith), the fourth member of the former group and the most famous, arrives at the home after a rapid decline in health, in the process reuniting with her former partners. However, not everyone is pleased to see Jean back on the scene – Reggie is still smarting from the break-up of their relationship decades ago, and is in no mood to forgive and forget.

Quartet’s story plays out pretty much exactly as you would expect, and hits all the right crowd-pleasing notes along the way (pun intended) while carefully avoiding any left-field twists or surprises. The real pleasures of the film come from watching this brilliant cast of film, stage and television veterans - Hoffman is clearly enormously enamored with his ensemble, and seems happy to let them get on with their respective specialties: Maggie Smith is typically acerbic and commanding as the diva robbed of glamour; Pauline Collins is warm, jolly, and heartbreaking; the standout Tom Courtenay is a tightly-wound spring of repression, nevertheless exuding gravitas and dignity, and Billy Connolly is happy to parade around the film being Billy Connolly.

An interesting if unlikely comparison for Quartet is this year’s Cockneys Vs Zombies, which, strangely, had almost as good a cast of veteran Brits as Hoffman’s film, but is a very good example of filmmakers not having the confidence to do much with their older actors other than set them aside as doddery comic relief.

Hoffman doesn’t make the same mistake – he knows he’s on to a good thing with this cast, and is determined to effectively give them a satisfying victory lap, something that is all but confirmed with a touching post-credits sequence where we’re shown photographs of the film’s players at the height of their careers, performing variously in the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and in a variety of iconic film and TV roles.  It’s a moving and thrilling reminder of how deep and rich our tradition of theatrical and orchestral performance has been in the UK.

That said, Quartet is surprisingly light on material that actually focuses on the intricacies of the music itself, and the titular quartet do surprisingly little singing: this is likely because seeing Billy Connolly lip-synching along to Verdi would probably incongruous enough to fatally spoil the illusion he is a world-famous tenor.

The film works best when operating as a light romantic-comedy, and proves less effective when touching on the reality of living in care. The film has some genuinely funny moments (the knee-rubbing Connolly has all the best lines, of course), and for the most part eschews the easy jokes.

That said, an early scene where Tom Courtenay and a preposterously good-looking and attentive class of teenagers compare rap to opera threatens to send the film into a teeth-itchingly embarrassing culture-clash comedy that it wouldn’t be able to recover from; however, Hoffman and Harwood seem to realise the thin line they’re treading on, and have the sense to get out of there before Courtenay starts ‘dropping’ any ‘science’.

The trouble with Quartet is that while it’s never less than engaging and enjoyable, it’s rarely any better than it needs to be, mostly just content with passing the time you spend with it as amicably as possible. Also, the (somewhat inevitably) stage-y nature of the production means it’s hard to get any sense of Hoffman’s directorial style or abilities – its visual style is perhaps a little bit too TV-movie and BBC Films for its own good, and for all the acting talent on display there is still no getting away from the fact that the getting-the-band-back-together storyline is about as formulaic as it gets.

As undemanding crowd-pleasers go, however, it’s undeniable that Quartet ultimately does the trick. Respecting your elders may not be cool, but it turns out it can still be a highly entertaining  way to spend 90 minutes.

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