Maybe it’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel effect. Maybe you can trace it back to the success of Downton Abbey. Heck, maybe it’s just Maggie Smith, but it appears that films headlined by respected, veteran British actors are now a force to be reckoned with at both the box office and at awards ceremonies.
Not long ago a film like Quartet would have struggled to get off the ground in the first place, let alone arrive in cinemas with a healthy promotional push and a handful of nominations already in the bag from the likes of BIFA and the Golden Globes.
Whether through luck or good judgment, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut has been able to ride on the coattails of its predecessors’ success into cinemas and so feels like an incredibly safe bet. Just a quick glance at Hoffman’s acting career though and it’s clear that safe is a word not often attributed to the screen icon. An adaptation of a play about four retired opera singers reuniting to perform at a concert in order to save their home for retired musicians is hardly one that screams to be made, but something about it appealed to the now 75-year old director and he was able to assemble a cast that immediately justifies its existence.
Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith are the eponymous Quartet, and they’re surrounded by a veritable smorgasbord of one-time stars of the British stage and screen, all of whom by now can all comfortably qualify for a bus pass. Smith’s Jean though is the key to the story – she arrives at the retirement home as overwhelmingly the biggest star (and that applies to Smith herself and her on-screen persona) and the final member of a quartet who had once famously performed Verdi’s Rigoletto together to great acclaim. It just so happens that the home’s annual concert marks Verdi’s birthday, and this year the concert is missing the star attraction needed to raise enough money to save the home.
Honestly though, the ‘save the retirement home’ plotline is largely irrelevant. There’s no real jeopardy, it just provides the story with some much-needed thrust. The key is that Jean and Courtenay’s Reg were once married and split acrimoniously some years ago. The real drama comes from whether the pair can learn to get along and in doing so learn to love life, performing, and maybe even each other again too. The potential is there for heavy and earnest drama – and Courtenay’s over-egged performance suggests that maybe that’s the film he thinks he’s acting in – but in truth it’s just as fun and frothy as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was.
There are some aspects of the tale that have a stab of pathos, but there are also giggles to be had throughout, particularly from Billy Connolly’s endearingly cheeky Wilf who relentlessly flirts with Sheridan Smith’s Dr. Lucy. He’s arguably a standout for being able to draw a delightful character from one who could have potentially come off as lechy, but he has ridiculously strong competition all around him. Some performances don’t quite work like the aforementioned Courtenay’s and Michael Gambon’s hardly used to best effect, but Pauline Collins is great and Maggie Smith is much better here than she was in her more cartoonish Best Exotic Marigold Hotel role.
That film keeps coming up and Quartet seems destined to be compared to it, but it’s tough to avoid comparison when quality-wise they seem very similar indeed. Both are well made, well-acted and pitched at the same audience, and while both being effortlessly entertaining are also undemanding fare which are perhaps drawing rather more awards attention than they deserve.
Quartet may just be that little bit more inconsistent, and a couple of scenes (particularly one in which Courtenay debates the relative merits of opera and rap with a group of ‘yooths’) are cringe-worthy in the extreme. By and large though it’s hard to rally against a film as fun and as easy a watch as this, and it can hardly be a bad thing that a previously under-served audience is now forming the crowd that a new wave of films are eager to please.