For the second time in as many months comes a film set around the world of classical music, with powerhouse performances from an a-list, ensemble cast but despite the similarity of names between “A Late Quartet” and “Quartet” they are actually very different movies.
Both are heartfelt examinations of growing old, but “Quartet,” from 74-year-old director Dustin Hoffman, has more in common with the easy sentiment of “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” than “A Late Quartet.”
The action centers around Beechham House, a luxurious retirement home for aging musicians. Three quarters of a once famous vocal quartet, Reginald (Tom Courtenay), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Wilfred (Billy Connolly), live there quietly until their former diva, Jean (Dame Maggie Smith), arrives. Her presence stirs up old feelings from ex-husband Reggie but might also be the key to changing the fortunes of the cash-strapped retirement home.
Based on a play by Ronald “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Harwood, “Quartet” could have gone one of two ways. It could’ve been a depressing look at the difficulties of growing old, or it could have turned into one of those “loveable old coot” movies. While both those aspects are present, so are unexpected laughs, elegance and warmth.
Like “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” it confronts the vagaries of old age head on, tackling them with equal parts humor and pathos. It treats its elderly characters like vibrant, real people, even though they use walkers and have lapses of memory. Medical conditions aside, emotionally they are as rich—if not richer—than 90% of the characters we see in any Katherine Heigl romantic comedy.
From Jean’s insecurities (“I can’t insult the memory of who I once was.”) to Cissy’s diminishing mental state to Reggie’s attempts to connect with some young students to Wilf’s roguishness, the movie is an intimate look at courage, fragility and Cissy’s favorite saying, “Old age is not for sissies.”
By times it is also, unfortunately, predictable, just this side of twee and don’t get me started about the unsatisfying ending. Luckily it’s a crowd pleaser due to the chemistry of the cast and Hoffman’s sure, but underplayed directorial hand.