Hitting all the right notes
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, January 25, 2013
“Quartet” is one of those movies that looks so effortless, it’s easy to forget just how much could have gone wrong.
For starters: What if delectable British veterans Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and professional force-of-nature Maggie Smith had not signed on to this movie, set in a cozily appointed retirement home for aging musicians called Beecham House? What if a passel of real-life musical stars, including opera singer Gwyneth Jones and jazz pianist Jack Honeyborne, had politely declined to become part of the home’s colorful cast of supporting players, who are far more likely to strike up an impromptu aria than a game of canasta? What if this concept -- based on Italy’s Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, chronicled in the 1984 documentary “Tosca’s Kiss” -- hadn’t appealed to the sensitively attuned writer Ronald Harwood (“The Pianist,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”)? What if he hadn’t turned it into a stage play, then adapted his own script for the screen?
Well, we wouldn’t have “Quartet,” which could easily have been condescendingly dotty, soupily maudlin or simply misplayed in every manner.
Connolly’s character, a libidinous old goat named Wilf Bond, could have been just a creepy old lech were it not for the actor’s disarming twinkle; the journey of Collins’s sweet-natured, spacey Cissy could have been played for “Amour”-esque tragedy rather than gentle acceptance and compassion; Smith’s Jean Horton -- a haughty diva who swoops into residence just as Beecham is preparing for its annual Verdi-performance fundraiser -- could have been so brittle and self-absorbed that we wouldn’t give a fig whether she sang a note or clapped her trap shut forever.
Instead, everyone and every theme harmonizes sweetly throughout “Quartet,” which features the added gratification of a cameo by Michael Gambon, playing the fundraiser’s extravagantly berobed chief organizer and herder of cats, who looks like he has just left a Gilbert and Sullivan bus-and-truck show. Romantic and financial peril give “Quartet” its portion of suspense, but the real draw is the music -- which ranges from Schubert and “The Mikado” to the jaunty jazz standard “Are You Having Any Fun?” -- and the affirming image of still-vibrant people settling into the third act of their lives doing what they love in the company of people they love to do it with.
Smoothly navigating the perilous line between insufferably twee and heartbreakingly grim, “Quartet” is a subtle, sure-footed delight -- made all the more enjoyable by the fact that it was directed by a 75-year-old first-timer named Dustin Hoffman. Judging from this debut, the kid’s got a future.
Contains brief strong language and suggestive humor.