Saturday 17 August 2019

From the archive: "Quartet"

You could be forgiven for assuming that, this far into his fifty-year acting career, a performer as engrossed with the art of performance as Dustin Hoffman has sometimes appeared might already have set foot behind the camera and made his directorial debut. But no, Quartet is it: a very cosy but not unenjoyable BBC Films-backed bid for some of those grey pounds that went the way of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel last year.

The Ronald Harwood play that provides its source relocated the let’s-put-on-the-show-right-here musical to a home for retired musicians, and featured characters surely old enough to remember that original wave of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies; Hoffman, working from Harwood’s own screenplay, has opened it out, amped up the opera music with which it was already annotated, and stocked it deep with anyone who’s ever come within a hair’s breadth of a BAFTA lifetime achievement gong.

Putting on the show here, under the stern eye of Michael Gambon’s irascible snob Cedric, are Billy Connolly as Wilf, an incorrigible letch; Pauline Collins as Sissy, the object of the latter’s affections; Tom Courtenay as the lovelorn Reg; and – fresh from Downton – Maggie Smith, toning down some of her recent archness to impress anew as legendary grande dame Jean, whose arrival sets the longer-term residents into disarray.

As rehearsals for the make-or-break gala concert gather apace, this foursome rake over their pasts and bicker like greying versions of the kids from Glee; there’s a fair bit of pottering about the grounds, and a smattering of popular songs (“Underneath the Arches”, “Are You Having Any Fun?”) designed to resonate with the target audience in much the same way as all the Flo Rida and David Guetta did with the demographic of Pitch Perfect.

Let us concede this is a decidedly romanticised, sundappled portrait of old age, written and directed by septuagenarians with significant financial and other support behind them, and many good years to come: the oldtimers we see on screen are mobile and largely compos mentis, so up to speed with life they can spar like the lovers in screwball comedies. (If you want the unvarnished truth about later life, I guess there’s always Amour.)

If it’s hardly the most dynamic of starts to 2013, Quartet proves far less condescending than the Marigold movie, refusing to paint the world beyond the home in grey or ghastly shades in order to make retirement appear any more appealing than it is. Instead, Hoffman keeps his camera close to his characters, their joys and regrets, taking pleasure in watching supremely skilled performers, whose faces have a whole history etched into them, exercising their not inconsiderable gifts. It’s a decent undertaking, no more, no less.

(MovieMail, January 2013)

Quartet screens on BBC2 tonight at 11pm.

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