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Sunday 2 March 2014

A Gentle Symphony - Review of "Quartet"


Every year on Giuseppe Verdi's birthday Beacham House, a retirement home for musicians, holds a concert to raise funds. This year the house is in particular trouble and the residents are reliant on the success of the concert. Lifelong friends and house residents, Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Reggie (Tom Courtney), step forward with former colleague Cissy (Pauline Collins) to put on an especially important performance. They wish to end the show with a quartet. Reggie is a hugely respected singer, matched only by his ex-wife, the former grande dame of the opera house, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith). Jean joins the home wishing to respectfully leave her career behind, but Wilf and Cissy know her presence in the quartet alongside Reggie will create enough public interest to save Beacham House. Reggie is still heartbroken from Jean's admitted affair and Jean has no desire to sing long past her prime. Meanwhile Cissy's dementia becomes ever more evident. Can Wilf's energy and good humour prevail upon the true spirits of his friends?


There are now a good number of films that deal with the age and garner a lot of affection. I would go so far to say that these productions nearly always get a respectable amount of critical acclaim if they don't necessarily do well commercially. I wonder whether a good number of are made as guaranteed Oscar fodder. The great Bette Davis probably inspired later producers and directors that critics and the general public alike are far more forgiving on established stars in their twilight years than at any other period of their career. What she might have also demonstrated to the more quality motivated filmmakers is that some of these years can often provide us with their best performances. Nevertheless, there is nearly always a type of cheer or smile of recognition when an actor like Christopher Lee appears in a cameo performance. Therefore, it is little surprise that "Quartet" having a highly respectable aging cast and credible writer will mainly receive positive reviews from professional critics. However, I have to say that the response is totally justified. I went in with little knowledge of the source material and was prepared sit through an imitation of "On Golden Pond" or "Saving Grace" in terms of style and structure, and was pleasantly surprised.

"Quartet" is a gentle comedy drama, as predicted, but there is no attempt to hit us with an outrageous comedy scene as many British films of this ilk are want to do. There are no standout scenes, but we are saved from predictably descending into bad British tragic comedy cliché the likes of which the TV series "Derek" is the worst mainstream example. Death and the fragility of life are touched upon with gentleness. Being set in a retirement home we don't need crassly reminding of their presence. There is more than enough interesting drama and humour to keep the viewer's attention. The build to the climax is almost written and directed as if it had elderly viewers in mind who might suffer heart failure if there was too much suspense. Similar and, I guess, wise restraint is shown in not having any of the lead cast either attempt to sing or mime.

Being based on a play, "Quartet" is very much an actors' film and I think it might put over the argument that many actors do some of the best performances during their greying years. I do not mean that as a slight on Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut. The understated style matches the storyline very well and Hoffman really allows the actors to breathe. I guess this might come from Hoffman's own background as a method actor who appreciated little interference. It might also be in respect of the pedigree of veteran actors, Sir Tom Courtney, and the great Dame Maggie Smith.

Tom Courtney is not seen much on the screen in recent years, preferring live work, but he is cast very well. His distinctive voice has a slight tremble to it that portrays well his character's unhealed emotional wounds. Maggie Smith has enjoyed something of a revival in the past 10 years, winning younger audiences through the Harry Potter franchise and constantly stealing scenes as well as the best dialogue as the cutting and witty voice for dying tradition in the "Downton Abbey" drama series. For these reasons she gets top billing her performance is fine, although the celebrity status of her character is so close to the affection the general public feel for the actress that it is a little hard to see if the role was particularly challenging.

The expression "Don't tempt fate" applies a lot to Billy Connolly. As much as the brilliant comedian likes to deliver very funny anecdotes about his past, he is often prophetic in his subject matter. His very funny piece on prostate cancer examinations - "You get used to it, but you never get to like it" - might be viewed with a sense of dark foreboding now given his recent albeit minor operation. However, his hilarious and very apt description of opera, which he admitted to loving, could be viewed as a pleasant preface to "Quartet".

Despite a very respectable ensemble cast of aging lovable actors, Connolly's performance finally shines out against the heavyweights. He has quite a history of holding his own against the best - the most memorable being his co-starring role with Judy Dench in "Mrs Brown" - but his performance tends to be that of a very able supporting actor and offers little that one could consider to be outstanding. However, his development of this approach comes into its own in "Quartet". By playing the role of a lesser singer against the two hugely respected headline stars, Connolly's character proves to be the life and soul of the project. His character reminded me of the Tom Ballard character in the TV series, "Waiting for God", with his flirting and determination to enjoy the rest of his life. Connolly's performance is to take nothing away from Courtney or Smith's entertaining acting or, indeed, the other member of the quartet, Pauline Collins, who provides a lot of pathos in her character's struggle against dementia, or Michael Gambon's wonderfully pompous portrayal, but rather shows how well Billy Connolly, the actor, can do given the right contrasting material.
Summary: A well-made and enjoyable gentle comedy drama

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