Quartet, on the surface, seems easy to dismiss as a film that your mum or grandma would love. Just a hint of the naughty, filled with familiar old faces and having to do with retired opera singers! Director Dustin Hoffman clearly understands how to tell a story through both word and visuals, and never attempts to show off, instead leading the audience and characters through a well-rounded journey. Quartet may not be flashy, but it’s pretty damn delightful to watch.
The plot revolves around many retired musicians and singers, who live in a retirement home in the English countryside, which is in danger of closing down due to lack of funds. When fate and luck reunite four of the greatest opera singers that England has ever known, there’s a chance they’ll be able to make one last push at a fundraising gala and save their home.
Dustin Hoffman’s love of music is evident throughout as the film certainly knows its way around the world of music. When one moves around inside the house, the large estate is bursting with chorus singers, instruments of all shapes and sizes blaring constantly, opera stars running their trills and more. The music is certainly the biggest star of the film, and it’s a quick, cursory journey through some of the biggest and best-known classical music. Featuring real musicians at every turn, one gets the feeling that Hoffman happily employed every aging operatic star and performer he could get his hands on. But a lot of premiere musicians under one roof makes for a lot of in-fighting and cattiness as well.
The four main leads are magnificent, from Maggie Smith’s cold and overly proud operatic star who used to be in love with Tom Courtenay’s equally proud operatic star, to the saucy old one liner comedy spouted off by Billy Connolly and the flighty, forgetful Pauline Collins. In fact, it is Collins who may very well have the toughest role, portraying a genuinely sweet but distracted woman who is in midst of losing who she is, becoming ever more forgetful and lost in time as she confuses names, faces, dates and times. Michael Gambon also pops up as a cranky and overbearing concert director, all swaddled in luxurious robes and strange hats, i.e. Dumbledore clothes, which stand out even more given that every other person is wearing normal people clothes. (If Prof. McGonagall can deign to dress normally while living in the Muggle world, surely Dumbledore can as well.) Mostly, it’s a joy to observe these established actors interact with one another, with such an air of familiarity and utter confidence, born of performing over a lifetime.
There’s a few gently teachy moments, such as when one character despises rap music but then gives a lecture to a group of high schoolers and begins to appreciate that rap and opera have some things in common. But mostly the film deals with nostalgia, longing for youth and both the harsh realities and wonderful joys of aging.
Over the final credits is a series of photographs of the singers and musicians in the film alongside glamorous photographs of them in their earlier days on stage. We never think that we’ll become old, if we do, I think we can’t hold it in our minds for very long. The film seems to be gently reminding us that we think it won’t happen to us, that our youth is indelible, a fixed star guiding us towards success and prominence. But we will grow old, the relics of our past lives will come along with us in photographs and recordings, reminding us that youth and beauty is not permanent, that our value cannot lie in being merely ornamental. We and our deeds will fade from memory, but for now, how wonderful it is to be surrounded by those who know us and remember.