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When I first saw Quartet at the London Film Festival I was as enthralled as the whole audience. We left the cinema with smiles on our faces. There were so many pleasures to experience in this wonderful film about old age.
Quartet has unfavourably been compared to the Marigold Hotel by some top critics. Ebert: This movie will no doubt be pitched to the same audiences that loved “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”(Nominated for an Oscar in 2013.) It even brings Maggie Smith along. But it lacks that film’s life, intelligence and spirit. It has a good heart. I’ll give it that. Maybe what it needs is more exotic marigolds. A.O.Scott (NY Times): “Quartet” makes “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” look like “Amour.” To be fair, the critics have been on the whole more favourable than this but none as enthusiastic as I was. Nevertheless the film did not gain the audience it deserves.
I called it a masterpiece in a blog on the London Film Festival. In Dustin Hoffman’s low-budget film, the elements of ‘feel-good’ are not based on denial and exotic fantasy but on real life. It is a feel-good film for old people not because it ignores the ageing of the body but because it acknowledges it. Although the consciousness of limited time ahead is present throughout, enjoyment and fun are also present throughout. It is a feel good film because it is based on the human qualities of friendship, caring, creativity, cooperation and the resolution of enduring conflict and pain. In opera, when a guy is stabbed in the back instead of bleeding he sings says Reggie one of the retired opera singers.
The action takes place in Beecham House, a retirement home for musicians. The pace of the film is slow and calming. In the 90 minutes the scenes are often over 3 minutes long and the editing imperceptible. They are sometimes intercut with shots of the grounds where the colours of nature are autumnal. Long shots of figures in this environment have the effect of putting people in the context of nature as do some night shots. Mainly close-ups are held for a few seconds and some silences also punctuate the action.
The title sequences are a montage of signs of age alternating with images signifying music on a sound track of a drinking song from La Traviata*. Close ups of lined faces and hands pair with close-ups of instruments, pills dropped in a glass, a sheet of music, a man subjected to a neurological test, a man doing his ironing, a woman swimming, a woman being wheeled into a lounge, a woman vocalising in her bedroom, musicians practising. All these snippets lead one to delight in the visual shorthand the director uses to set the mood and subject of the film.
One unexpected pleasure is the confounding of our expectations. Famous old actors often typecast and well-known for major iconic roles, blend magically with the rest of the cast of retired musicians. Thus Maggie Smith (77) becomes Jean a vulnerable diva who mourns the diminishing of her talent. Tom Courteney (74), Reggie, still hurts after many years because of his young wife’s infidelity. Pauline Collins (71), Cissie, is in her first stages of dementia and Billie Connolly (69), Wilf, who walks with a stick is disinhibited, funny and kind. Apart from this quartet other actors are also transformed: Michael Gambon into a controlling director, and Andrew Sachs as a mild choir master. A few other actors but mainly professional musicians make up the rest of the cast. In scattered scenes they are seen practising, rehearsing, performing.
The acknowledgement of certain signs of ageing stimulate a comforting feeling of recognition: the dizzy spell, the angina attack, the prostate problems, the looking for words, the loss of memory and mobility. More serious decline is hinted at also but there is no denial and it addresses our losses and fear of the future. Jean: My gift has deserted me. Reggie: It deserted us all. It is called life. And of course Cissie shows signs of creeping dementia.
These old people are not socially confined to their age group. They teach the young but also are entertained by them. Reggie learns about rap and Wilf colludes with a young gardener who provides him with illicit drink. Cissie has an immediate rapport with the young visitors to the home. The resident doctor is a young woman and we get glimpses of the housekeeping staff, the French waitress, the Polish driver,
All these details – and there are many more – of the mise-en-scene are the rich background for the story which has two strands. The home is short of resources and a fund-raising gala is being organised at which the quartet made up of the 4 main characters should sing. Decades ago Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissie were friends and sang together. Their Rigoletto Quartet was particularly acclaimed. Jean and Reggie were lovers and married. Wilf was Reggie’s best man. However 9 hours into the marriage Jean announced to Reggie that she had betrayed him while on tour. Reggie left her and did not forgive her. Years later Wilf had a stroke that affected his frontal lobe – hence his disinhibition. He went into the home and Reggie and Cissie joined him. The film takes up the story when Jean is forced by financial pressure to be admitted to the home. The tension results from the refusal of Jean to sing in public and Reggie’s resentment and even anger at Jean’s betrayal. After a few reversals both conflicts are resolved and provide the final feel-good factor.
It may be unfair to pick out the performances of Smith and Courtenay amongst the other brilliant ones. But the lovers reconciliation is treated with an extremely light touch and avoids cheap sentimentality. Here I will disagree with Hoffman who said in an interview that the love story could have been a love story for a couple of any age. There is no way that a younger character could experience and live the deep hurt and pain that Reggie carried for decades. The resolution of unsolved conflicts is also an issue of old age.
The film has a feeling of lived experience as opposed to the Marigold Hotel that relies not only on exotic locations but also on the presence of more disadvantaged people to empower the older ones. The actors mention in interviews that Hoffman, aged 76, insisted on them not ‘acting’ but being themselves. And indeed they achieved the wonderful feat of infusing the characters with a certain essence of ageing if there is such a thing. It is not a case of identifying with the character, more a case of recognising a common experience. We all age differently but the consciousness of ageing is the same.
What I perceive as a danger of the film is the impression that this kind of retirement home where one can age with dignity is only possible for privileged people who have special talents. I would argue that one of the major social problem of old age is the forced isolation, the fear of old people’s homes. Lack of resources and also imagination leads our individualist culture to favour an isolated old age around our own possessions rather than a liberating environment where companionship, creativity, caring and engagement with the local community permits a dignified old age.
* There are many music connotations in the film: the lyrics of the brindisi in La Traviata exhort people to drink in celebration of life and is sung by the resident choir in the opening scene. There are many others. Also one of the pleasure of the film is the music itself that remain in your head long after the end.
see www.ageingageismdiary.wordpress.com for comments on ageing.