Getting the band back together

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Quartet is the second of two movies to debut recently dealing with the subject of old age. Amour told the story of a woman in her mid-80s, experiencing a complete and permanent physical collapse. Quartet is about people about 10 years younger, who still feel pretty good, and want to be useful, but who can see the end in the near distance. Both films assert that older people are pretty much the same as younger people, except for failing bodies and different circumstances.

This sentiment is something we’re going to hear more and more from movies, as Boomers and near-Boomers age and start looking into the abyss: I am me. I look a little different, but I’m the same as I ever was. Quartet—directed by Dustin Hoffman and adapted by Ronald Harwood from his play—is a reminder from septuagenarian artists that turning 70 doesn’t make anybody dumber or wiser. Most importantly, it doesn’t make anybody less interesting.

The setting is fascinating, a retirement home for old musicians, but serious musicians, not some guy who once played the tuba in a parade, but people who were in major orchestras or who sang opera at La Scala and Covent Garden—people who know what it’s like to stand center stage and feel the cascade of applause. And now the applause has stopped. Careers of glamour and travel, with romantic flings fueled by room-service champagne, are over. What is it like to be so full of talent that no one is interested in, and to have amazing stories that nobody really wants to hear?

Hoffman, in his directorial debut, has crafted a hopeful movie with a warm atmosphere, but one that’s realistic, too. There’s a melancholy undertone, an unshakable awareness of death, not in the room, but down the hall and much too close. And the acting is glorious, which also has something to do with Hoffman, though he certainly made his life easier by casting wonderful actors.

Quartet is buoyed by the Scottish charm of Billy Connolly, as a lovable flirt and extrovert—he is a delight and also a locus of truth in every scene he’s in. Yet when the movie is over, the performance that will keep returning to mind may be that of Tom Courtenay, who plays a character of reserved disposition but enormous passion, someone whose intense loves and rages are mostly covered over with a gentle dignity. What can be said about the appeal of this character he plays? He just seems like a uniquely decent person.

The precipitating event in Quartet is the arrival on the premises of a legendary diva, played by Maggie Smith—at this point my fingers are itching to type “the great Maggie Smith,” as though that were her full name. Smith has a special quality that no other actress possesses, an ability to suggest both clear-eyed perception and utter cluelessness simultaneously. It’s an ideal note for a diva who knows the world and knows her own heart, and yet can be tin-eared in her dealings with people.

Wilf (Connolly), Reggie (Courtenay), and Jean (Smith) once appeared together in a now-classic production of Rigoletto, along with Cissy (Pauline Collins), who also lives at the retirement home. Most of the film concerns the attempt to reunite the four singers for a charity event, an effort complicated by past history: Reggie and Jean were once married and broke up years before under bitter circumstances.

As Cissy, Collins plays a woman of childlike enthusiasm and gentleness, who is in the early stages of dementia. Most of the time, she is mostly there, but sometimes less so. But one gets the sense that, with a little patience and a lot of love from her friends, Cissy’s condition might stay in a holding pattern. In any case, Cissy’s situation is treated as just another part of the old age terrain. Friends notice her problems, but no one is particularly fazed or distressed.

That kind of detail marks this as the work of a screenwriter who knows the 70s experience through direct contact. Ronald Harwood—who has written lots of quality projects in recent years, including Being Julia, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and The Pianist—is 78. So he’s familiar with the battle conditions.

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