Spoiler Alert: We All Die
What happens when we get old, when our abilities leave us and we wake up one day with more life behind us than ahead? Hopefully it’s a nap, but eventually, something’s gonna kill us. Is there a slim chance that maybe the ultimacy of life doesn’t have to be such a downer? Is it possible to enjoy this reality, savor it even, no matter how close we are to ditching out? Apparently, according to Quartet, yes.
All the residents of the Beecham Retirement Home for Musicians each led a successful and haughty career in their previous life. Now they can afford to live in a castle of contemporaries. Reggie (Tom Courtenay) a former opera singer and now teacher, is content in his art-colony idyll, until his only love and brief wife Jean (Maggie Smith) moves in. He never stopped loving her; she is bitter over a lifetime of regret, having cheated on him in their marriage’s infancy. The story revolves around their tense relationship, parallel to the anxiety of aging out of relevancy. This is all under the umbrella of a hail-Mary gala that hinges on a quartet’s performance. If Reggie and company have enough grit to sing together, to push through their insecurities, they can rescue Beecham House from dying, too. Quartet is thick with potential terminations.
Even so, the air is light, and director Dustin Hoffman (the first time he’s ever directed a movie) tries to keep the old people happy in spite of their fate. Obviously Hoffman loves British theater history; it shows through sun-drenched foggy courtyard landscapes, a stressed but pleasant elderly cast of real-life British thespian legends, favorable camera angles and a contented atmosphere.
It’s not subtle, this death-at-the-dinner-table thing. The chairs are made of death, the beds and curtains too, but the sun still shines through the windows. Ronald Harwood (who won an Oscar for The Pianist), wrote the original play and then the screenplay for the film. The play is easily imaginable in this single-setting structure, but when made into a movie, certain facts fall through. Where are their families? Why are there no elevators or restrooms? How can such a palatial clinic ever be in this dire financial state? What was good for the stage doesn’t always work for this film, but, given all the happy old ladies, these are forgivable. It is clean, prim and stately and seems like it would smell like lavender potpourri and tea, not menthol cream and sanitizer.
Wilfred and Cissy (Billy Connelly and Pauline Collins) are the other two members in the potential dream-team quartet; Wilf is a horny old coot and the film’s comedy–he blames his inability to censor himself on an earlier stroke–while Cissy suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. Everyone represents some symptom of old age, but when music presents itself, all pain is erased.
Quartet feels like it is directed by an aging reminiscent. Anytime Maggie Smith’s joints ached or she rubbed her temple I visualized Hoffman’s presentation at the Oscars a few weeks ago, a snow-headed little elf next to Charlize Theron. She was a golden statue, while Li’l Hoffman could fit in a Baby Bjorn. Take him hiking and he’ll fall asleep. Quartet feels like it’s Hoffman’s pet project, simultaneously supporting the antiquated art of opera while asking what becomes of us when we are too old to exhibit our own natural gifts anymore. It seems Hoffman might even fear of losing whatever makes him Hoffman, as Smith’s character experiences pseudo existentialist moments every few minutes.
At a time when a recent survey shows how grandparents feel a growing obsolescence in the shadow of Google, Wikipedia and YouTube (the kids just don’t ask for advice anymore), Quartet says we’re forgetting something important: The elderly are still very relevant; they are our lighthouses of inspiration. We should appreciate them. After all, we will be them one day. While Quartet isn’t revolutionary or even all that memorable, it’s nice to be reminded that maybe we don’t all go slowly, alone into that dark death.