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"QUARTET"
(2013) (Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Dramedy: Retired musicians and singers who live together in a group retirement home attempt to convince the newest resident to join them in performing for a benefit concert.
PLOT:
Jean Horton (MAGGIE SMITH) is a legendary opera singer now well past her prime. Not only is she unhappy about having grown old, but she also isn't pleased with having to leave her home so that she can move into the Beecham House for Retired Musicians. The residents there are all former musicians and singers, and Dr. Lucy Cogan (SHERIDAN SMITH) and her staff do what they can to make sure everyone is happy, healthy and kept busy.

Among them is Cedric Livingston (MICHAEL GAMBON), a bossy type who's putting together a benefit concert featuring the residents where the proceeds will go toward keeping Beecham House open. He's concerned that the show will be a bust now that one of his top singers has had to drop out due to ill health, but sees Jean as a new and exciting replacement. Unfortunately, she no longer sings, and the fact that her ex-husband, Reggie Paget (TOM COURTENAY), is a fellow resident and part of the intended show quartet doesn't help matters.

Being the one who cheated on him long ago, she asks for forgiveness, something Reggie isn't willing to dole out, much to the chagrin of his friends and fellow singers, Wilf Bond (BILLY CONNOLLY) and Cissy Robson (PAULINE COLLINS). But Reggie starts to soften up to the point that he joins the others in asking Jean to perform with them. Initially, she adamantly refuses, not wishing to tarnish her reputation with her now aged voice. She eventually comes around, however, and the newly formed quartet does their best to get ready for the show.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Actors and actresses often move from in front of to behind the camera for a variety of reasons. Some are tired of being directed by others and want to be the ones calling the shots and thus be in greater control of what ends up on the screen. Others want to grow in their line of work and directing is obviously a natural progression of their craft. And then are those who made a lot of money acting but really weren't always that good from a quality standpoint, yet discover they have a knack for directing others.

In the same vein, some performers jump at the chance to get into the director's chair as quickly as possible, while some wait a bit until they've learned enough from other masters. Occasionally, some will wait a half century or so before finally taking that plunge. Dustin Hoffman is one of the few in that latter group, and after 52 years in front of the camera, he's finally made his directorial debut with "Quartet."

Perhaps it's fitting that a 75-year-old actor is helming a tale about similarly aged (and older) musicians living in a group home for such people as they plan a big fundraising concert to raise enough money to keep the place open. The only problem is the lead male singer's health is in question and thus has to pull out, leaving the event's grandiose and often belligerent planner (Michael Gambon) worried that they're sunk before even setting sail into rekindling their once famous and decidedly younger careers.

Things would appear to look up when a legend (Maggie Smith) arrives on their doorstep as their new resident. Yet, there are two very distinct problems. One, she refuses to sing, not wishing to mar the memory of her past greatness. And two, long ago she jilted her husband (Tom Courtenay) who just so happens to a fellow performer and resident who's none too pleased that she's unexpectedly arrived. Throw in a charming scoundrel (Bill Connolly) who can't stop hitting on the ladies of all ages and another performer (Pauline Collins) whose senility is progressively getting worse, and the entire benefit performance is in serious jeopardy.

Working from a script by Ronald Harwood (based on his play), Hoffman crafts a mightily engaging, funny, and emotionally moving but thankfully never condescending dramedy about older folk cooped up together. The performances range from strong to great throughout the cast, the music (both performed and on the soundtrack) is terrific, and it's nice to see a film aimed at older viewers that has enough contemporary and cultural touches that younger viewers can watch it without feeling like they're stuck in "The Golden Girls" meets "Lawrence Welk" purgatory.

Like its near AARP companion piece, "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" (that also starred Smith), the film shows that older people are just like the rest of us, with all of the same emotional baggage than time and age can't seem to remove, solve or at least pacify. Egos and insecurity abound with recklessness, love and jealousy still rear their heads, and the mantra of forgive, forget and live life to its fullest still reigns. Of course, there's the added element of fully realizing that time is slipping by, a reality pointed out by aged and sometimes failing bodies and minds.

If anything, the film is a reminder that music can soothe the savage beast in whatever form such human frailty exists. Whether it's Courtenay's character teaching teenagers that opera and rap aren't as dissimilar as they might seem (in a scene that touched me emotionally, somewhat to my surprise) or music lifting downtrodden spirits and creating a sense of community, the filmmakers expertly include the glorious notes throughout the pic without coming ever coming off as manufactured, overwhelming or manipulative.

While it doesn't possess the far-flung locales or travel vistas of "Best Exotic Marigold," Hoffman's debut makes good use of its far more limited setting (most takes place inside a decent-sized manor) without ever coming off as stuffy or smothering. And he clearly gets winning performances from his game cast, with Smith credibly playing an aged diva with equal levels of egotism and vulnerability in her, while Connelly is terrific as the amorous rascal with a heart of gold. Courtenay and Collins also deliver stellar takes on their characters, and Sheridan Smith is good as the younger doctor on the premises. Meanwhile, Hoffman has populated much of the supporting cast with real-life former musicians, singers and such (as noted in the end credits with then and now pics), and their authenticity shines on.

Hoffman may have been known for much of his career for his method acting style (where one creates the emotions and thoughts of their characters within themselves), but it never feels like any of his cast has to work hard to create believable or sympathetic characters. I wasn't sure how I was going to react to the film -- what with Hoffman taking so long before finally deciding to get behind the camera -- but I really enjoyed "Quartet" and am happy to report that viewers my age and older will likely find it music to their ears. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed January 21, 2013 / Posted January 25, 2013


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