Year Released: 2013
Directed by: Dustin Hoffman
Starring: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambo
(PG-13, 97 min.)
“Getting old is not for sissies.” Bette Davis
Dustin Hoffman hits all the right notes in his directorial debut about an English home for retired musicians. It comes somewhere in between the French melancholy glimpse into the abyss of old age offered by Armour and the randy vulgar denial of it too often presented by Hollywood.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that the Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess herself, Maggie Smith, leads the cast of British thespians. Yes, she still gets off a considerable barrage of one-liners, but as Jean Horton, a now retired opera star, she also shows some of the vulnerability beneath her façade of aloof dignity.
This is not the first time the Brits have shown us how to handle old age on the screen. The 2012 delightful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel features the twin 78-year-old stage and screen icons, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. In that production both wear their wrinkles with pride, especially Maggie Smith, whose role is pivotal, stealing every scene as she waves her wattles with the same panache as an aged rooster.
Like Downton’s dowager, Quartet's Jean Horton also uses a cane. While our television countess manages to make it into as much a fashion statement as a venerable colonel’s walking stick, in Quartet Jean relies on it, wincing in pain on several occasions. Of course, she doesn’t like to admit that to the staff:
Dr. Lucy Cogan: We have the chair lift, which will be much easier for you.
Jean: What do I do when I get to the top, ski down?
Of course, Jean is dealing with more than her aged body. It is the loss of her place on the stage, where she has been adored, that is her hardest struggle. She sums it up in two simple sentences anchored by that loss. “You must understand. I was someone once.”
Yet, we know from the title that this is not a solo performance. Also residing at the Beecham House are three other retired opera members and they have a history with Jean, the least of which is their past performance in the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Reggie (Tom Connolly) was also, once very briefly, Jean’s husband.
Reggie is as shy and retiring as Jean is aloof and regal, although he comes into his own when he teachers a workshop to urban youth about opera. Reggie ties opera to modern day rap, his mild manor so inviting that one young rapper responds with an extemporaneous performance.
Wilf (Bill Connolly) delights in outrageous flirtation with the blond Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith) who runs Beecham House, as well as just about anyone else in skirts. But, thanks to the deft writing skills of Ronald Harwood, who knows how to maintain the light touch, there is not even a whiff of the Little Miss Sunshine’s Grandpa Hoover. (You remember him, Alan Arkin’s foul-mouthed curmudgeon who snorts heroine and brags about his sexual liaisons at the Paradise Nursing Home.) As critic Ann Hornaday aptly notes, Wilfie “could have been just a creepy old lech were it not for the actor’s disarming twinkle.”
The fourth member of the quartet is Cissy (Pauline Collins), sweet and loved by all, who must make allowances for her short-term memory losses. Always in search of her allusive purse or the exact time of a meeting, Cissy is Beecham House’s white rabbit, but she doesn’t fret nearly so much about her tardiness.
It is Michael Gambon’s Cedric, holding court as he organizes this year’s musical fund raising event, who carps on Cissy’s punctuality. Cedric’s entire wardrobe consists of exquisite robes, as though he has left his clothes at his abandoned estate and instead packed the costumes from his run as I, Claudius. But with Cissy, the grand impresario’s scolding is affectionate rather than cutting.
But it is not just these retired musicians who catch our eye, but the splendidly talented other residents as well. Instead of bingo games or knitting, these guys indulge in a little jazz and soft shoe, or perhaps in between breaths from an inhaler, some perfectly wonderful clarinet playing.
Will the quartet reunite for the gala fundraiser? Is it ever too late to begin again, in love as well as music?
It will be a delight to find out for yourself as you watch this wonderful film, highlighted by actual performances by talent that knows no age. And stay seated for the final treat as the credits roll with pictures of all these greats from their day of early fame.
For our food selection we go behind the scenes of the filming for Quartet. It lets us in on one reason that Dustin Hoffman got such wonderful performances from his cast. He treated them well. According to David Gritten of the Telegraph Hoffman knew the quickest way to their hearts.
I wander back to the set, through another throng of elderly extras, and hear a phrase people have been dropping all day: ‘Running lunch.’ Collins has clued me into what it means. On most film sets there is a fixed break for lunch, but because of the median age of the Quartet cast, food is available all day as and when they want to eat or graze. ‘It keeps their energy up, which is important,’ Hoffman tells me.
To keep the energy up – yours as well as theirs – I have chosen a recipe from Different Drummer’s own Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook. It’s a delicious French Potato Salad bathed in vermouth, chervil, chives, and tarragon.
But to set up a fitting banquet for this exquisite cast, our own running lunch will also collect some favorites from past reviews. (Recipes will follow the reviews.)
French Potato Salad
10 medium potatoes, boiled in their jackets
1 clove garlic
1 cup dry white wine or dry vermouth, heated
1/4 cup beef broth, heated
3 tablespoons tarragon or wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
2 shallots, mined
3 tablespoons mixed chopped parsley, chervil, chives, and tarragon
Bibb lettuce or heart of romaine
1 to 2 tbsps. capers (optional)
Peel potatoes and slice thin. Put in a bowl well rubbed with cut clove of garlic. Pour in wine and broth and let marinate for 1 hour. Pour off any excess liquid. Meanwhile, beat vinegar into mustard, salt, and pepper. Gradually add oil in slow stream, beating constantly. Add shallots and herbs to potatoes. Pour on dressing, toss gently with 2 wooden forks. Garnish with lettuce and capers.