Quartet is a rare thing. While it does leave you smiling in contentment like a Cheshire cat, the light is shaded by such sadness and nostalgia that the scales are tipped from comedy to drama fairly often. Nevertheless, the film is uproariously funny, deeply intelligent and blows any other ensemble cast this year completely out of the water with incandescent acting from Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins.
Most of the film’s plot plays out at Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians that allows for all the beauty and eccentricity that such a name implies: continuing to play the clarinet when you have to stop every two seconds for breath, musing on how you never achieved less than twelve curtain calls, arguing about how you should have sung more Wagner and why, and doing all the stuff you never could during your career because your days were entirely composed of practicing and performing. The arrival of top soprano Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) in the midst of ongoing rehearsals for an annual gala aimed at keeping the establishment afloat, triggers a cautious reunion with ex-husband Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay) and former colleagues Wilfred Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). Together, they constitute a former operatic quartet known for their celebrated performance of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and it is almost immediately suggested that it be revived in time for the gala. To adequately describe the drama that ensues, let’s quote Stephen Poliakoff: each of the characters comes face to face with memories.
Quartet has the rare advantage of great actors working with a great script, something that occurs only too seldom nowadays. Maggie Smith’s performance as Jean is a welcome respite from Her Ladyship the Dowager Countess: she’s mercurial, moving and tragic. Haunted by a Callas-like depressive longing for the voice of her youth, she lashes out acrimoniously at anybody who attempts to breach that magic circle or to have so much as a cursory conversation with her. Her face and eyes are profoundly expressive of grief and regret, and the viewer is conscious, in certain moments, of observing true artistic greatness. It is her best and most interesting performance in years: sad, funny, and effortlessly charismatic. On a less relevant note, the rather cantankerous roles Dame Maggie has been occupying herself with of late are also responsible for making one forget what a beautiful woman she is: in this role, that beauty is present in an almost luminous way and makes her all the more enthralling to watch.
Chemistry wise, Smith is also an ideal match for opposite-number Tom Courtenay, who is positively awe-inspiring as Reggie. In each of Courtenay’s roles, from Doctor Zhivago right up to Little Dorrit, one is always struck by a disbelieving awareness of his near-volcanic screen presence; how he commandingly shifts focus from everything around him simply by standing silent, reflecting. It’s a natural talent that is incredible to watch, but by no means constitutes the sum total of his performance. Of all the characters, Reggie is by perhaps the most multi-faceted, both in terms of his personality and in terms of the universality of music and the role of music in a great artist’s life. In terms of the former, there is one particularly charming scene in which he gives a lecture on opera to a group of teenagers. Utterly without ostentation, he questions them on their tastes in music (most of which he admits to knowing nothing about) before attempting to find something in opera that his audience can relate to. He eventually comes up with this little gem that builds on a joke that every opera fan is familiar with: ‘Opera is when a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he sings. It seems to me that rap is when a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he talks.’ Reggie’s devotion to his art, but willingness to try to understand the art of others and to find parallels between them, is something that even today’s opera climate needs desperately, and it is a testament to the originality and insight of the script that this aspect of music comes out through the character that is by far most old-fashioned. It is also through Reggie and the re-kindling of his previously-catastrophic relationship with Jean that we witness the tragedy of ‘music or life,’ a choice that every great musician ultimately has to make. Music usually wins, but it is the supreme beauty of this film that great musicians in their twilight years are able to choose life, through music – and actually enjoy it. Courtenay’s performance is both subtle and powerfully dramatic, his exquisite face and voice playing out against each other with perfect equilibrium, and perfect pathos.
The other, more riotous half of the quartet are as riotous as can be. Billy Connolly is absolutely filthy as the sexed-up Wilfred (filthy in an entirely positive way), his performance a perpetual, glowing river of comic genius and upbeat carpe diem hilarity that work both as a perfect counterpoint to best mate Reggie’s constant brooding and an incredibly strong stand-alone performance. Pauline Collins is also disarmingly dotty, lovable and hilarious as the pathologically amnesiac Cissy, her sometimes alarming memory lapses like a shadow that contributes considerably to the film’s darker nuances. It also wouldn’t be entirely fair not to mention Michael Gambon’s delightful supporting role as Cyril, drama queen and impresario, who likes to recline on sofas in elaborate Oriental dressing gowns telling people to shut up and change their repertoire.
Staying with cast, director Dustin Hoffman’s decision to cast retired musicians rather than actors in supporting roles works wonders in creating an entirely authentic atmosphere. The kind of mini-society that creates itself when you shut a group of classical musicians up together for any length of time is conveyed with astonishing and moving accuracy, as are the intense seriousness (and the intense laughter) of what goes on in the practice rooms. There is none of the dreadful miming and purposeless gestural pyrotechnics that string musicians and pianists in particular usually have to put up with when watching this type of movie and the train-spotting is great fun. The film’s authenticity is also greatly increased by the fact that the ‘smelling the roses’ thing is not rammed down your throat at all and is implied rather than stated, complimenting the film’s heartwarming universality.
Quartet is a truly great film. Engaging, entertaining, movingly real, brilliantly acted and brilliantly written, and perhaps above all, refreshing. It is genuinely great material written for older actors; there are none of the clichés of mothers, grandmothers and old maids that national treasures usually have to play simply because they’re old. It gives our greatest actors work that they can actually sink their teeth into, creating an entirely new and original top level in the upper echelons of acting. It reminds us that human drama, tragedy and catharsis are timeless and ageless, and that when all this complexity is played out by people who are old enough to understand it and to understand how it should be portrayed, the time has indeed come for the professionals to take over.