Review: Quartet (Life and Love in the Later Years)

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Dustin Hoffman’s Quartet is a quick and charming story of late life revival, so surprisingly lithe you’d hardly believe it was a directorial debut. Like an upscale Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet begins with a retirement home, but this home is made more auspicious by its residents, each of whom is a retired musician—and not just any fiddler or chanteuse, but Europe’s cream of the symphonic crop. Divas sing at supper, sheet music circulates like love notes and the conductor (Michael Gambon in hilariously ornate robes) cons the residents into singing their star-making solos for the home fundraiser.

The film’s title refers to the four characters at its center, and like most films directed by actors the principle performances are its core: Tom Courtenay (Billy Liar) is the distinguished gentleman and defacto leader, Billy Connolly (Fido) is the lovably naughty Scotsman, beloved Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) is dissolving into her dementia and, in a late entry, Maggie Smith is an odd choice for the obstinate diva.

With a cast the size of a retirement home, Hoffman has to keep focus on the drama inside the quartet or risk confusion, but he integrate everyone and maintains an energetic environment by papering the walls with the casual rehearsals of real-life symphony stars (many of whom are featured in a post-film slideshow in black and white glamour shots with their big roles listed alongside). Though everyone in the home bears their age-associated weaknesses, these men and women are also fizzling with life, a quality they share because they all seem beyond the dark realization “the parade’s passed them by” and accepted that their parade is one they forge ahead, with or without the help of the prevailing tides.

As a recommendation, I also suggest looking up a 2007 doc called Young@Heart. Much like Quartet, this doc sees the elderly rediscover life's joy through song, but the songs they sing are by Coldplay, Nirvana and Hendrix. When you hear these untrained singers harmonize The Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated” you’ll realize this movie swaps Quartet’s silver spoon with a paper plate (to quote another of the chorus’ covers.

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About Sara Vizcarrondo

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Sara Vizcarrondo is a freelance film critic out of San Francisco. She runs Opening Movies at Rottentomatoes, teaches film/media studies at DeAnza college and writes on film for Popdose and The SF Bay Guardian.

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