? Quartet. Directed by Dustin Hoffman. Starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins.
Rating: 7 (out of 10)
I'VE known the name of Billy Connolly since the 1970s.
My parents used to listen to an LP of his bawdy stand-up comedy (the title "Cop Yer Whack For This" decipherable only by Scots) and shoo me out of the room.
Connolly's fame and quick decline (due to drink, drugs) was the subject of Gerry Rafferty's hit "Baker Street." But he bounced back, went to America to do Head Of The Class on TV, found critical acclaim opposite Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown, and made some high-falutin' friends, including the Duke and Duchess of York (he was one of the few invited to Prince Andrew's bachelor party), and actor Dustin Hoffman.
This is all relevant because Hoffman - in his directorial debut - cast his old friend Connolly as one of the leads, and the beginning of the film threatens to turn into the Connolly show, with the comedian lobbing pickup lines at every skirt he sees, drinking like a fish, and peeing in the shrubbery. In contrast to the other senior residents of Beecham House, a stately manor home for retired musicians, his Wilf is a boor. But after about 20 minutes Hoffman reins his friend in, thankfully, and the film finds its footing as a tender and touching film about mortality, and about relationships at the end of life.
Beecham House seems like an idyllic place to retire: the house is always full of music, vocal concerts, strings rehearsals in the gazebo. And Cedric Livingstone (Michael Gambon) is forever bossing everyone around, as directors always do. And when the residents squabble, the insults tend to be scathing reviews of past performances: "I saw you in Carmen. I can't forget your performance, but I'll try."
But the house is threatened with closure in six months' time, unless this year's gala concert can raise the required funds. Reg (Tom Courtenay), Wilf and Cissy (Pauline Collins) are practising like mad when a newcomer arrives. Diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) is "as large as life, and twice as terrifying," according to Cissy. She's also Reg's ex-wife. "I wanted a dignified senility," poor Reg laments. Jean just wants his forgiveness.
The home's salvation could come from the tremendous publicity of reuniting four talented singers to perform the famous "Bella Figlia dell'amore" quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto. If only Cissy's dementia wasn't getting worse, and Reg and Jean were speaking to one another. The residents aren't getting any younger, and there is the occasional poignant reminder that the time to make amends is at a premium.
The cast is splendid: Maggie Smith's character is a diva, a snob - she takes her meals in her room, thank you - but that soon melts away to reveal a regretful, somewhat fearful heart. Pauline Collins brings spunk and pathos to the slightly muddled Cissy; Courtenay is quietly powerful as the legendary tenor cuckolded by the love of his life. And yes, once he's spent of most of those zippy one-liners, Connolly too finds his rhythm as the film's comic relief.
A nice piece of directing from Hoffman, Quartet is a tonic for some of the high-stakes, adrenaline-laden films currently playing at the multiplex. Watch the credits to see photos and brief bios of the real stars who populate Beecham House.