This latest attempt to attract the older audience back into cinemas is directed by Dustin Hoffman in what I think is his first role as a director for the cinema. Not surprisingly then, this is a film for actors – or rather for ‘performers’ – with a script by Ronald Harwood based on his own play. In one sense it is a very classy production with John de Borman looking after the photography. On the other hand it’s not much more than enjoyable ‘middlebrow’ fluff. I think using the old term ‘middlebrow’ is appropriate here. The story involves the residents of a retirement home for musical performers engaged in the age-old narrative of putting on a show – a gala event to raise money to keep the home’s finances in the black. The success of the show is then threatened or enhanced by the arrival of a new ‘retiree’, a star opera performer who once was in a relationship with one of the existing residents. So, will Maggie Smith, for this is she, consent to perform the quartet from Rigoletto alongside Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay?
There isn’t much of a narrative ‘drive’ and what there is depends very much on the playing of Maggie Smith and Tom Courtenay. Fortunately, they are both very good and I think it is Tom Courtenay’s dead straight playing that saves the film. I think he actually looks better now than he did 50 years ago when he was first established as a leading man. Then he was the gawky child-man in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar. Now he is slim, upright and handsome in his mid-seventies. Maggie Smith was being nominated as ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ for her role in the Burton/Taylor film The VIPs in 1963. I’d certainly pay to see a film in which Courtenay and Smith were a couple looking back on what might have been. But I’m afraid that we don’t get enough of that here. Instead we are offered an ensemble piece which doesn’t really generate any surprises and mostly comprises predictable vignettes. The effect is ‘middlebrow’ because the film is tasteful with the enormous country house in spacious grounds presented by de Borman as almost idyllic. Don’t come here looking for the realities of social care. On the other hand, the music and discourse about opera etc. is conducted at the level of bitching about who used to get more ovations at the end of a performance. That said, the performances are entertaining. I’m not sure about Connolly as a film actor but Pauline Collins is excellent. (Sheridan Smith’s slim role is a bit of an insult to a young actor who is currently ‘hot’). Many of the smaller parts are played by retired musicians and performers and I thought the addition of their old photographs and one line bios in the closing credits sequence worked very well.
The IMDB bulletin board on the film features an entertaining rant about how bad the film is compared to the play but that isn’t going to stop the film being a hit. After one week in Australia and its opening week in the UK, Quartet is No 25 in the International Box Office Chart and No 4 in the UK. It’s likely that because the older audience usually goes to the cinema midweek, these figures underplay its appeal. I don’t think it will have the same long term box office pull that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been able to exert. It will also have to contend with Song for Marion (with Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp) due out in a few weeks and sounding as if it will make an interesting comparison with Quartet. But what these three films show is that, following the phenomenal success of The King’s Speech, British producers have finally twigged that a solid genre film featuring the pulling power of 1960s stars like Smith, Redgrave, Stamp etc. can entice those over 60 back into cinemas. These are the audiences who as teenagers experienced British cinema at its height in the 1950s and 1960s; they still have the cinema habit in their blood and they just want films to watch.