The original Ronald Harwood play of Quartet was performed to great acclaim by the Hoddesdon Players, an amateur group to which I once belonged.  Indeed, it won a prize at Hertford Theatre Week, among other gongs.

I was fascinated to see how Quartet turned out on the big screen for several reasons, chief among them how this fairly theatrical work translated (of which more later), but for other reasons too:  how would Dustin Hoffman‘s directorial debut turn out, and why did he pick a very English piece by a very English playwright (who is actually South African and formerly an actor too, but let that pass) with a very fine British cast, set in an exceedingly English location and exploring the very finest Italian opera?

After all, the plot is essentially no different to the Blues Brothers: “we gotta raise money to save the orphanage from closing, so let’s get the band back on the road.”  OK, no car chases or blues music, but instead Beecham House (played magnificently by the glorious Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire), ageing operatic stars (who, like The Sunshine Boys haven’t worked together in donkey’s years and are not necessarily remembering past relationships fondly) and a Gala Performance in aid of the Friends of Beecham House to raise money for the old place.  But that is merely the stage upon which the players strut their stuff.

As it turns out, Hoffman did not approach this gentle slice of drama like a Sam Peckinpah or a Quentin Tarantino, so it’s a pleasure to report that he stays true to the subtle nature of a comedy of manners and relationships without the need to bring the worst excesses of brash Americana to the show.  No gun-toting, but a refreshingly light touch to allow the movie to breathe – the location, the characters and Harwood’s cunning script are given time and space to show what they can do, and are much the better for it.  The result is very much a three-dimensional film without the need for any 3D gimmickry.

Having said that, you couldn’t go far wrong with a movie including such fine talents as Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Andrew Sachs, Sheridan Smith, David Ryall, Trevor Peacock, and then Dame Gwyneth Jones alongside a host of ageing singers and musicians, exactly the sort of people you might hope to find spending their senior days in a splendid country home for retired musicians.  All Hoffman had to do was rehearse them, point a camera and a mike at them; wind up the ensemble, let them get on with it!  There is a beautiful other-worldliness to the way they move and play and sing that I truly cannot fault.

And boy, they surely don’t disappoint.  Of the principles, Billy Connolly might be argued as the weakest in terms of acting credentials, by virtue of having within his repertoire one character, one he plays exceedingly well mind you.  His role as the cheeky Scottish chappy has been revived in a fair number of pictures in several variations (eg. Mrs Brown), having originated in his rough and ready Glasgow stand-up days, but is none the worse for that.  I don’t say this as criticism of Connolly, who is perfect for the role of flirtatious Wilf Bond (a sort of latter-day Scottish operatic Leslie Phillips) and plays it with the requisite charm such that socks must have been popping off everywhere on set.  If he is overawed by being among such distinguished actors, he certainly doesn’t show it – but then the Big Yin was always totally fearless, and that is his main strength.

Pauline Collins does exactly the right thing here.  She underplays Cissy, the unmarried one who is beginning to lose her marbles, leaving the audience with glimpses of brittle pride and memory waning every so slowly, oblivious to the dawning pity in the eyes of her friends and colleagues.  In a flashier movie it would be easy to lose such exquisite acting, but in this context Collins shows precisely why she is always in demand for roles requiring consummate skill.

She and the estimable Dame Maggie Smith both, in fact, and what a pleasure to see them playing together here in contrasting moods.  Where Collins’ Cissy is wan and fragile beneath an effusive exterior, Smith’s Jean Horton enters aloof but sad, as if planning her declining years as a great star to be moulded from tragic ingredients.  She is almost willing everyone to forget her, to deny her glorious past, while secretly hankering over the great recordings.  As the film progresses, so Horton becomes more ebullient, regaining her caustic wit to live for another day of glory, and, who knows, maybe more beyond the rolling of the credits?

But for my money the acting honours must go to Sir Tom Courtenay, whom I had the pleasure of seeing play several roles at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, especially Malvolio in Twelfth Night.  Always a fine robust actor whose characters were built by layer upon layer of truth and darkness, Quartet is surely the performance of Courtenay’s long and distinguished career.

He has long since mastered the art of communicating his every nuanced thought with an inflection of the brow, a flick of the eye, a pursing of the chin.  Every micro-movement conveys meaning and feeling.  Even being still and silent (as actors are taught in their first year at RADA) is studied and smouldering. That is what acting for the big screen is all about, and many A-listers would do well to take note of how real character actors like Courtenay, Smith and Collins bring such emotional intensity to their roles.

Here it combines in Courtenay to become a thing of hawklike grace and beauty – you know how he feels when the wife he adored but who abandoned him retires to the same house; you feel his desire to escape, but also how and why Reg Paget allows Jean Horton the tiniest of chances to make amends.  But see also how Reggie interacts with and wins over a group of youngsters: they try to explain rap and hip-hop to him, he tries to explain opera to them – a joy to behold!

The cavalry charge of light relief is provided by Ryall and Peacock’s Flanagan and Allen double act, much to the obvious irritation to Gambon’s purist Cedric (“that’s See-drick”) Livingstone.  I do wish Gambon wouldn’t ham it up when given the opportunity, but he’s obviously having fun so who am I to deny him?

Criticisms?  Hoffman’s light and delicate soufflé goes a little flat in patches, and also loses a touch of credibility by the fact that Beecham House is way too grand and opulent for most royalty, let alone retired musicians – most of whom may be too poor to pay the fees in any such establishment.

Dustin, himself 75 years young, also fails to grab the opportunity to explore the vagaries of old age rather than portraying the residents as musicians and singers who just happened to grow old and experience the various inconveniences of age.  An opportunity gone begging to apply passion and insight to the plight of the elderly, to show age for the complex and difficult beast it truly is – and none of us are exempt.

Ah, I hear you ask, but do we get to hear the quartet perform the Verdi Quartet? Alas, since the performers are actors rather than singers, there is a limitation to their range, and this is it.  Where on stage miming worked brilliantly, the faking here would have undone much of the painstaking veracity constructed over the previous 98 minutes. So the camera discreetly draws a veil and withdraws.  You wish the protagonists a long and happy retirement.

Make no mistake, this is quality stuff – the buzz between the players is palpable, and I’d urge you to go see it for that alone – the charm of the piece will win you over anyway.

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