Dirty little secrets stir up the reunion of a world-famous quartet when they get together for a one-off concert. An eccentric diva, her ex-husband, a lustful baritone, and the scatter-brained object of his desire make up a cast of vivid characters. This is the story of four friends reconciled and revived by their love of applause.


Interview: Pauline Collins talks 'Quartet'

Ageing orchestra tale strikes the right chord.

With baby boomers starting to hit retirement age, we appear to be witnessing the birth of a new genre – not so much film noir as film gris, or 'grey film'. Typically these are multiple-strand stories about older citizens that, despite themes of ageing and death, are ultimately upbeat and celebratory (as opposed to confrontingly honest like Michael Haneke’s upcoming Amour).

Its director, Dustin Hoffman, coaxes the outstanding performances for which you’d hope from an actor of his standing.

As shown by Fred Schepisi’s Last Orders, Susan Seidelman’s The Boynton Beach Club, Stéphane Robelin’s And If We All Lived Together and John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, these films are typically set in a retirement village or its equivalent or on the way to a departed friend’s ashes-scattering, and usually benefit from ensemble casts packed with high-class names such as Jane Fonda or Michael Caine. If the producers can tempt Maggie Smith to parachute in her prune-mouth act yet again, so much the better for the box office.

The UK-set Quartet (not to be confused with the similarly titled Late Quartet recently released in the US) fits the pattern entirely, being set in a rural retirement home for professional musicians and opera singers and enlivened by an ensemble including Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay, along with the inevitable Smith. (Presumably Judi Dench was away on Bond duties.)

The film immediately stands out as one of the finer examples of its kind, largely because in adapting his own play, the veteran screenwriter and stage dramatist Ronald Harwood (The Pianist; The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) brings an expert architectural underpinning to the drama and has the good sense to steer clear of the triteness and blatant feel-goodery marring Marigold Hotel.

But it also shines because its director, Dustin Hoffman (finally earning his first behind-the-camera credit after uncredited work on Straight Time back in the 1970s), coaxes the outstanding performances for which you’d hope from an actor of his standing. Just as impressive is the feeling Hoffman shows for the cadences of Harwood’s script, the unerring ability to know when to speed up the tempo to allegro or slow it right down to lento.

Music, of course, plays a central role here, the plot being centred around the drive to put on a performance of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. The main obstacle is that two of the home’s singers, Courtenay’s Reginald (got to love that name) and Smith’s Jean, are a former husband and wife who split up in bitter circumstances decades ago and have not spoken to each other since.

I winced when I first read that Smith was in the cast, so predictably stereotyped have her purse-lipped dowager turns become, but her performance here as a former star unable to drop the diva affectations has a subtlety she has too-seldom been encouraged to display.

Connolly is on familiar turf as the randy Wilf, managing to keep a character defined by his unrelenting flirtatiousness just on the right side of sexual harassment. Despite a line explaining his affliction as possibly caused by a stroke, in the hands of a less comically gifted actor this role could have seemed really off.

Courtenay is the film’s standout performer, though, somehow allowing Reginald’s placid surface to open up and reveal a deep well of emotion without appearing to be doing much. My favourite scene has Reginald lecturing a group of bussed-in school kids on the differences between opera and rap. With rap, he announces, a man is stabbed in the back and then talks about it. With opera, a man is stabbed in the back and he opens up with emotion. He’s talking, of course, about himself.


In Cinemas 26 December 2012,
Thu, 01/01/1970 - 20