Getting old is not for sissies – Bette Davis
The preceding line is quoted by one of the main characters in the delightful film “Quartet” and it essentially sums up the spirit of the entire movie.
The movie is set in pastoral England in a retirement home for classically trained musicians. Do specialty retirement homes really exist? Is it reserved for musicians or can astrophysicists or, say, auto mechanics spend their golden years discussing quantum particles or rebuilding Chevy Novas? Maybe some questions are better left unanswered.
“Quartet” is notable for being the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman, who at 75 years young has decided to move from in front of the camera to behind it. He does such a wonderful job with this movie it makes me wish he had decided to try his hand at directing a little sooner.
But for a movie boasting the message that it is never too late in life to begin a new chapter, it makes perfect sense that after three-quarters of a century this would be Hoffman’s first movie as a director.
The plot of “Quartet” is a fairly simple one, essentially an elderly take on the classic “let’s put on a show!” storyline. The residents of the retirement home put on a concert with the hopes of raising enough money to save their beloved residence.
The grand finale is to be the reuniting of four renowned opera singers, but there is some doubt if they will ever make it to the stage because each must battle with his or her personal ailments and a lifetime of baggage.
Cissy (Pauline Collins) is a spritely soul who has a kind word for everyone, yet struggles with bouts of dementia.
Wilf (Billy Connolly, ever the scene-stealing force of nature) is a life-long Lothario and life of the party; it’s never quite clear if his barrage of unfiltered comments is related to a previous stroke or simply a personality trait that has expanded over the years.
Reginald (Tom Courtenay) is reserved and soft-spoken, yet comes to life when teaching opera to a group of teenagers.
Events are thrown into upheaval with the arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith), Reginald’s ex-wife, and the final member of the quartet to arrive at the home. A grand diva in her own right, she refuses to sing in public because of her bad hip and declining skills.
While each of the four leads gets some great character moments as they muse about the passage of time and lifetimes full of glories and regrets, the magic of “Quartet” is what is going on in the margins.
The supporting cast and extras who populate the home are actual retired musicians from the highest levels of the British arts scene.
Hoffman lovingly lingers on these characters as they prepare for the show while belting out arias, concertos, and the most glorious rendition of “Happy Birthday to You” you will ever hear.
What is perhaps most impressive about Hoffman’s debut as a director is how he is able to make a movie set almost entirely in one location seem vibrant and fresh.
“Quartet” is one of the best movies you’ll ever see about old age and while it does wind up as a celebration of life it doesn’t flinch when dealing with some of the unpleasant realities of growing older.
Getting old is most assuredly not for sissies, but this movie proves that those with strong hearts and spirits cannot be daunted by the slowing down of the mind and body.
“Quartet” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language and suggestive humor.