A retirement home for professional musicians is in trouble. Almost all of the funds each year come from a huge benefit gala honoring Giuseppe Verdi's birthday put on by the residents. However, the star performer is unable to perform this year and tickets have actually been returned. The only chance of keeping the retirement home alive is the arrival of the most famous musician to ever retire there. Her name alone could turn the gala into a success. However, she is an aggressive opera singer who has not performed in years and refuses to take an interest in the life of anyone else in the home.
Quartet is a sweet little diversion about classical music, growing old, and learning to start over again. It's packed full of cliches that should send the whole thing crumbling to the ground before the grand diva arrives onscreen. They probably work wonders onstage in the original play by Ronald Harwood, but they could easily turn into a huge distraction onscreen. Thanks to an excellent cast and good direction, the film overcomes all obstacles.
Maggie Smith leads the charge as Jean Horton, the most famous living soprano in the world. This is a very different character for Smith. She's no stranger to playing a curmudgeon, but Jean Horton is a raw nerve ready to give up at the slightest adversity. Her life is full of regrets brought to the forefront by her tenure at the retirement home, especially her short-lived marriage to fellow musician Reginald Paget.
Paget is played by Tom Courtenay, who is the heart of the titular quartet. Together with Jean, Wilf Bond (an excellent and funny Billy Connolly), and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins in a tricky role as an optimistic Alzheimer's patient), they performed the most critically acclaimed production of Rigoletta in the history of England. Courtenay and Smith trade off as hero and villain, showing the end result of decades of adversity after their failed marriage. It's a perfectly cast core group of characters that do the heavy lifting in the story.
However, the true stars of the film are the wonderful classical musicians who populate the retirement home. World-class opera singers, pianists, musical theater actors, and instrumentalists are constantly onscreen performing in Quartet. It's a beautiful melange of art that creates a unique and believable world in the same way the explosion of color and light on the streets of India sell the conceit of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
All of the overlapping musical elements could serve to muddy the waters. Enter first time director Dustin Hoffman (yes, that Dustin Hoffman) proving his vast knowledge of cinema. Quartet is directed with a loving eye for film and classical music. Each scene is bursting with detail that never distracts from the story being told.
In one scene, a group of characters are rehearsing for the gala while Wilf and Reg have a discussion in the foreground. In the background, Cissy can be seen through large windows selecting flowers from a gardener to put a bouquet together. The head doctor of the facility also passes by and a few other recognizable characters are even further beyond the glass. Each of these actions pays off in the next few minutes in the film, but their appearance together creates a complete picture that doesn't distract from the driving action of the scene.
Now repeat that method for 90 minutes onscreen. True, some scenes are more intimate, but most are brimming with life and energy provided by a very talented group of musical performers. Quartet may be the story of four retired performers trying to move on with their lives, but it is also the story of how music can have a transformative effect on any life.
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