McCammon, Anne W. MD
“Quartet,” Dustin Hoffman's 2012 debut as a film director, is a well-crafted, somewhat optimistic meditation on aging. Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his play of the same name, the film takes place at a beautiful English country estate called Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians that is posh, cultured, and facing financial problems.
The yearly gala in honor of Verdi's birthday should replenish the home's coffers, but the show is in jeopardy. One of the singers has backed out, and the anticipated highlight, the quartet “Bella figlia dell'amore” from “Rigoletto,” is off the program. As the camera zooms into Beecham House's elegant parlor, the gala's director, Cedric Livingstone (Michael Gambon), is in a swivet.
Artistic egos have not diminished with time, and residents good-naturedly insult each other. There are rivalries between soloists and chamber players; opera singers feel superior to Gilbert and Sullivan devotees. The music hall crowd is impervious to snobbery. Though one musician is taken away by ambulance, the ravages of age seem mild in comparison to other recent movies about older musicians, such as “Amour” and “A Late Quartet.”
Several residents, including Cedric, have mild memory problems that are portrayed as endearing rather than alarming. Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) seems pleasantly dingy most of the time and enjoys listening to her old recordings, particularly a recording of “Rigoletto” considered a landmark of the post-World War II era.
Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), another member of that cast, is earthy and jovial but given to sexual come-ons to women of all ages. His behavior, attributed to a small stroke, is tolerated with remarkable good humor, and he is witty enough to avoid coming across simply as a dirty old man.
Renowned tenor Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) insists that all he wants is “a dignified senility.” Many residents continue to teach and, at Wilf's suggestion, Reggie tries to teach teenagers about opera by appealing to hip hop. To his surprise, the kids get his point, in their own way, and he begins to appreciate their new music and its emphasis on rhyme. He, too, was part of the famous “Rigoletto” cast.
Enter a new resident, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a diva who has given up singing after bad reviews and is plagued by a bad hip. Reginald is upset by her appearance because they were once married and separated on bad terms. She, of course, is the missing fourth member of the quartet.
Reggie retreats to an old church to avoid confronting Jean. She follows him and asks his forgiveness, but his heart remains hardened. Meanwhile, Wilf and Cissy conceive the notion that the old quartet should reunite to sing the famous aria for the gala. They convince Reggie to join them, but Jean refuses. She argues with Cissy and strikes her. Cissy falls and hits her head. Although she recovers quickly, her memory problems progress.
Ultimately, Jean's competitiveness with another resident diva propels her to sing after all. Just before they are to go on stage, Cissy becomes agitated and announces that she wants to go home to her parents. Jean, contrite and unusually gentle, is able to calm Cissy and the show goes on. Earlier, Reggie overheard Jean regret her youthful indiscretions. Now able to forgive her, he asks Jean to marry him again.
Besides the treat of watching veteran actors, some better known in Britain than the US, those portraying the residents of Beecham House are all retired professional musicians. As the home's doctor notes, old troupers seem younger and more animated when they have a challenge and can do something they love.
Director Dustin Hoffman chose a vehicle that allows actors to play characters their own age, somewhat uncommon in American movies. The emphasis on coming to terms with age, physical limitations and past mistakes is quite different from films in which neurological problems, portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy, drive the plot.
Compared with films like “Away from Her,” a bleaker, more accurate portrayal of dementia, “Quartet” touches on serious issues but doesn't explore them in depth. Gorgeously filmed and a pleasure to watch, the film's tidy, inspirational ending may appeal most to those of a certain age, who yearn for a comfortable and fulfilling retirement.
Dr. McCammon is a Neurology section editor for Humanities/Reflections, and is a voluntary associate clinical professor of neurology at the University of California, San Diego.