Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Review By James Colt Harrison

Maggie Smith is the actress of the year, with her smash TV series Downton Abbey dominating the airwaves, her great turn in the comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and now her star part in Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet. In the film she says, “You must understand. I was someone once.” Well, Ms. Smith still is someone.

This is Mr. Hoffman’s sophomore turn as a director, and his first effort is a delightful look at the world of retired opera singers and musicians who live in a retirement home in England. Hoffman, being an Oscar® winning actor, has probably come into contact with eccentric and diva-like characters during his lifetime in front of the cameras. Does this give him a better insight into his characters and their sometimes over-the-top personalities? It seems so, as he handles them lovingly but not with kid gloves. All the characters were stars in their own right and in their own professions, be it singers, musicians or composers. It seems anybody with talent can be a prima donna. Mr. Hoffman recognizes this quality in his stars and lets them succeed or fail by their own quirks and frailties.

Each year Beacham House puts on a concert celebrating Verdi’s birthday. This allows the old performers to shine again for an evening’s entertainment and also serves as a means for raising money to keep the home operating. This year is different because they are all agog with the anticipation that star singer Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) is coming to live there. Reginald (Tom Courtenay) was once married to Maggie and he dreads her arrival. Wilfred (Billy Connolly), Cecily (Pauline Collins) and Reggie were once her singing partners. When Horton became a star, it split up their friendship. It has been a long time since they all saw each other, but will that heal the wounds that occurred to all of them?

Screenwriter Ronald Harwood (from his West End play) has thrown all the funny lines to Smith and Connolly. Smith is used to getting the biggest laughs in most of her films because she has a devastating delivery that makes an ordinary sentence sound like an indictment. Mr. Connolly is a famous stand-up comic in Europe who has made a few fine films that reached the US. He plays a randy old man who likes every skirt that goes by and imagines he’s a lady-killer at 75. The two of them are a hoot and brighten the film considerably.

Smith’s character Horton refuses to sing in the gala, and that threatens ticket sales and the fate of the home. This causes great turmoil for the other singers and musicians, and they desperately try to change Horton’s mind. This is about the extent of the tension in the film.  There are so many other redeeming qualities that it doesn’t matter if the overall effect of the film is gentle and mild and just plain sweet and funny. There is an attempt to show how senility affects some of the residents, but the audience is not hammered over the head about the problem.

The superlative British cast, including Michael Gambon as a fey, over-the-top director, is a pleasure to watch and speak the English language properly. The snippets of music are a grand pleasure to hear. Original music is by Dario Marinelli and Music Supervisor is Kle Savidge. The lush look of the film is due to its splendid cinematography by John De Borman, Production Design by Andrew McAlpine and Costume Supervisor Nigel Egerton. The film has a look of elegance and good taste.



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