Sunday, February 3, 2013

Movie Review: "Quartet"

At the Beacham House for Retired Musicians, something is always going on. A former opera diva is practicing scales in her room, groups of people break into spontaneous or rehearsed songs, and someone is always performing. The highlight each year is the celebration of Verdi's birthday, for which the musician residents give a gala benefit open to the public. The importance of this year's gala as a fundraising effort cannot be underestimated—if the house can't get its rebuilding fund filled, there is a risk it may close and everyone must find a new place to live.

When the top-billed performer falls ill, Cedric (a fey, egotistical Michael Gambon, wearing his leftover Dumbledore garb) is trying to badger Reggie (a patrician Tom Courtenay), Wilf (a ribald Billy Connolly), and Cissy (a fragile but precious Pauline Collins) to sing something from their legendary performance in Rigoletto. And the ante is upped when the home's newest resident, opera legend Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) arrives, much to the surprise of her fellow residents. Jean was the fourth person in the group's famed Rigoletto quartet, but when fame and ego got the best of her, she quickly stepped on the little people in her life, most notably Reggie, to whom she was briefly married.

Quartet marks Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, and it's a precious, fun little English movie in the spirit of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Waking Ned Devine, or Calendar Girls, but with singing and music thrown in for good measure. The plot revolves around whether Reggie can forgive Jean enough for hurting him all those years ago, whether she can be persuaded to sing in the gala after not singing for years, and whether the house can be saved. And along the way, the film wrestles with the themes of growing older and confronting one's mortality, finding the self-confidence you once had, and trying to forgive and forget.

The movie's predictability doesn't affect its charm in any way, buoyed in large part by the performances. Smith combines her near-legendary sarcastic, eye-rolling delivery with some moments of vulnerability, Courtenay gives his role the most emotional depth, Connolly tears into every double entendre (and even the single ones) with a gleam in his eye, and Collins is flirty, sweet, and fragile. A few times the movie nearly veers into maudlin territory but Hoffman deftly saves the plot from going down that road, and for that I'm thankful. The movie doesn't break any new ground, but it is tremendously enjoyable.

The coolest thing about Quartet comes during the final credits, when you are shown the musical pedigrees of some of the cast. It's pretty fantastic that Hoffman was able to assemble such a worthy ensemble for this movie, and that authenticity keeps it from being just another twee film about older people making music. Definitely a fun movie to catch, either in theaters or on DVD when its released.

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