The plot of Quartet recalls that of The Muppets, though without a tongue in cheek. Beecham House is a home for retired opera singers and it manages to stay afloat with an annual gala in which the aged singers and performers prove that they have still got it. Once a star, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) arrives at the home only to be awkwardly reunited with Reggie Paget (Tom Courtenay). There is a near fifty-year old grievance between them and their relationship is cold at best. Once they were part of a quartet, along with Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Alzheimer’s sufferer Cecily ‘Cissie’ Robson (Pauline Collins). As the gala approaches, Wilf and Cissie first try to negotiate a rapprochement between Jean and Reggie and then convince them to reunite as a quartet in order to save Beecham House.
One of the oddest things about Quartet is that Dustin Hoffman, whose only previous directorial mark was some uncredited work on the great Straight Time in 1978, directed it. Quartet is full of moments of extreme pastoral Englishness that only an American director could have made. Hoffman’s camera lovingly lingers on Beecham House and on the countryside a little too much, though often his film is surprisingly nice to look at. This is probably because otherwise Quartet is very much an actor’s film. Hoffman concentrates on the performances and there is a suggestion of improvisation in some of the performances, particularly with Billy Connolly, where the camera does not quite catch a one-liner.
However, whereas Hoffman’s approach pays dividends in terms of the film’s performances and more generally with the film’s light and breezy tone, there are some major problems with the film’s plot, which is just too familiar. Equally, there are a few scenes that push the evident sentimentality too far, such as when Dr Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), the head of Beecham House, gives a tearful salute to the people in her care that is as patronising as it is unnecessary. Is the film really suggesting that the best that the elderly can do is merely inspire the young? There is also a problem with the film’s ending, which sits awkwardly between awkward pragmatism and retrospective artistic choice. For a film about singers, we never really hear the four leads sing and since a lot of the drama is based on them coping with their fading talents it is hardly convincing. Surely it would have been more effective, risky even, to have presented their cracked, flawed singing with jubilant acceptance rather than to have cut away as some slasher films do when the knife is raised.
Coupled with this is the feeling that, despite Quartet being an actor’s film, none of the actors are stretched. Maggie Smith plays at the same register as her Downton Abbey role – classy but cutting. One of her biggest laughs comes when she is being impatiently rude to the help. Tom Courtenay seems like a supporting character for the majority of the film and his big scenes are all rushed. Billy Connolly seems to be the lead protagonist since the camera zeroes in on him every time he is present. Connolly is a comedian so he gets all of the one-liners. Pauline Collins’ role is probably the meatiest and yet she is bubbly and distracted throughout, playing Alzheimer’s without any of the pain.
Quartet is at its best when it is considering the past. Jean Horton is wracked by guilt at a long-ago affair and the film is most interesting when considering the strangeness of a long life. Horton will frequently look back on events and people from long, long ago, usually with exasperation. Tom Courtenay is good at showing both the silliness of holding a fifty-year old grudge and yet the still-present pain. Old age is confusing, the film suggests and yet its solution is one that is difficult to take. The lesson is to seize life while it is still there to be seized and the elderly are frequently patted on the head for, as Connolly will eventually shout, “just fucking do[ing] it.” As a film about old age it is unenlightening. Worse still is the film’s attempts to present the lot of the elderly yet retain a certain form of modernity, resulting in a difficult scene in which Courtenay is given a lesson in rap and hip hop. Quartet seems to suggest that a sense of humour, a refusal to be embarrassed and a vocabulary that includes ‘fuck’ is all you need to be able to seize life at an old age. Meanwhile, we have the figures of Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly to contend with. Connolly’s stand-up was always slightly risqué and as he got older, old age is just another thing to be ridiculed and laid bare. Courtenay, with Billy Liar and The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner, was one of the figures of the British New Wave. In Loneliness, he easily wins a race and yet stops just before the finish line, a fantastic symbol of someone who was angry and who wasn’t going to play by the establishment’s rules. It is very difficult to watch Connolly and Courtenay in a film as safe and establishment-friendly as Quartet, despite the references to rap and the swearing, especially when that film is all about not letting age stop you from being who you are. Ultimately, Quartet says more about old age’s ability to quieten society’s rebels than it does about old age itself.