This year the Cornwall Film Festival closed with Dustin Hoffman’s enjoyable comedy drama Quartet and what a lovely way to end.
The film features a plethora of British acting gems including Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay and the hilarious Billy Connolly and it is these wonderful actors that make the film truly entertaining. Set in an extravagant retirement home for musicians and opera singers, Beecham House is full of eccentric aging stars and a variety of characters. The place is brimming with creativity and keeps the talented seniors busy with school groups visiting for a class on opera, young people having musical tutorials and a group of residents practising for their annual concert to celebrate composer Verdi’s birthday. But this year the concert must be extra special as Beecham House is at risk of being closed and the group must attract as many people as possible to the concert in order to raise funds. A new arrival at the house, Jean (Maggie Smith), gives retired opera singers Cissy (Pauline Collins), Reginald (Tom Courtenay) and Wilf (Billy Connolly) the idea to reform their original operatic quartet with Jean for the concert. But Jean has all but given up on singing and history between herself and Reginald causes problems. Will the quartet manage to pull it together and will the show even go on?
The story for Quartet is not hugely original but due to the attention to detail with the characters it really doesn’t matter and the film remains completely charming. Based on Ronald Harwood’s play of the same name, the characters are extremely well written and the actors completely bring them to life. Billy Connolly offers some light relief as the lothario Wilf who has a one track mind, Pauline Collins is endearing as the simple Cissy whose memory is fading, Tom Courtenay is splendid as Reginald, an enigmatic and private character who struggles with the arrival of Jean, and Maggie Smith is wonderful as the huge star Jean who has faded from the limelight and feels she has nothing left. Sheridan Smith is also surprisingly good as the doctor in charge at Beecham House.
A nice addition is the end credits which have old photographs of all the actors in the film and what their show business background is, both enlightening and reinforcing the calibre of the people in the film and their individual talents and is also a dedication to the performing arts. This is a film about age and people of all ages will be able to identify with the various issues that arise, whether it is fear of performing, competition from other people or letting that one true love get away. However, essentially the target audience for this film is certainly those of a more mature age.
There are a few genuinely touching moments, usually around the issue of age and deterioration, but these moments are brief. This is overall a typically British entertaining delight that is the perfect length and has plenty going on to keep you enthralled but not too much so that it becomes overly dense. The ending is a little anti-climactic due to the fact that none of the four main actors can actually sing opera and so unfortunately this is overcome in a rather unsatisfying way.
This is a very safe film for Hoffman to begin directing with and is light and fun without being fluff. The main problems with Quartet are the skimming over of real issues, Cissy falls and is hospitalised, her memory seemingly gone but this is so momentary we forget about it instantly. Beecham House is a fantasy for the elderly and the upper middle class elderly at that. The film doesn’t feel very real and the dilemmas the characters face often feel trivial and overly dramatic. But certainly audiences do not always want to watch a social realist drama and Hoffman has created a feel good film rather than a questioning and thought provoking film.
The screening I saw of this film was one of the busiest at the festival and the audience laughed a lot throughout, even giving a round of applause at the end. With such big stars and Hoffman’s name as director there is little doubt this film will be a success. It is not the best or strongest film I have seen this year but it is full of charm and heart and has a quintessentially British feel to it, clearly people still want escapism rather than challenge.
Quartet is released on 4th Jan 2013
Director: Dustin Hoffman
Writers: Ronald Harwood (play), Ronald Harwood (screenplay)
Stars: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Billy Connolly
Runtime: 90 mins