What? A “Quartet” so soon in the footsteps of “A Late Quartet”? I was definitely tickled, thinking that Hollywood has finally realized that there is more to movies than the Twilight Zone and Tom Cruise. Not really, though, these two movies are just two very welcome outsiders. The same could also be said of the “Silver Linings Playbook”, but I won’t comment on that movie which, contrary to the general opinion, I didn’t particularly like.
The latter Quartet has very little to do with the former , although they were released practically on the same day. I also realize now that neither was made in Hollywood. One was filmed in New York, the other in Buckinghamshire, England.
So much for my high hopes about Hollywood coming to its senses. Still, there is the magical touch of the movie Mecca in both, via the actors in a Late Quartet and the surprising director of “Quartet”, the great Oscar-winning Hollywood star Dustin Hoffman, who does a very good job indeed.
This “Quartet” is not about chamber music at all. It is “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” revisited as the Best British Retirement Home for Opera Singers (and other musicians). And do not read contempt in this remark. Just as the Indian version, this movie is a total delight. I found myself wishing that my own later years could unfold blissfully in a place like this.
Of course, the setting is dreamlike and I doubt that a retirement home of this caliber exists anywhere. Even the story doubts it, as the retirement home is in danger of closing and a fund-raising gala is being planned to save it. But I won’t spoil it for you, as I can probably give my opinion without giving away the plot.
So, what makes this movie worth watching? Almost everything, I would say. The setting, as I mentioned before, is simply gorgeous, more like a luxury country resort than a retirement home. The actors are there usual excellent selves. Maggie Smith is surprisingly low-keyed, having most probably saved up all her extraordinary and hilarious hamming for Downton Abbey. She delivers a restrained and self-conscious diva who definitely does not want to fall into ridicule, contrary to Dame Gwyneth Jones playing herself (although her name in the movie is Anne Langley) and not at all afraid to show that she still has retained most of her glorious voice. Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly are both excellent as well. Courtenay is the stern one and Connolly totally loose, a kind of operatic Laurel and Hardy duo the charm of which is hard to resist. And Pauline Collins is extraordinary and makes one think that Alzheimer’s is not all that bad, at least not in the stage she is in.
Yet it is not only the glamorous performers which fill the screen with so much warmth. Add to them a bunch of real-life pros who still sing and play their instruments exquisitely and you have what I imagine to be a senior version of the Marlboro or Tanglewood ambiance.
Let’s not fool ourselves though. The plot is a little thin. Will the retired divas and divos overcome their differences, illnesses and anxieties to produce a decent fund-raiser performance? No one ever doubts they will, so the plot is not really what matters. What does is the love of music that all the protagonists manifest, the eternal beauty of their art which transcends earthly difficulties, and the transformation this love and this beauty can bring to petty everyday concerns.
One enchanting sequence in the movie is the class Reggie (Tom Courtenay) gives to a group of apparently extremely unconnected and bored teenagers, during which you watch the old singer slowly conquer the youngsters by showing them how close his art really is to their own concerns.
I would not miss this movie, knowing that it is basically a brilliant exercise in acting and making music – have I not just given a possible definition of opera? Actually, this script could be the basis for an opera à la Capriccio, the main question being: can they or can’t they pull it off? The answer, to me, is: they sure can!