Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 27, 2013 10:01 am 
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Not for sissies

People in the first world are living longer. That includes movie directors, most notably the Portuguese one, Manoel de Oliveira, who's still working and currently 104. And even more actors. Terrence Stamp, the Sixties heartthrob, now 74, has a new one coming out where he's a grumpy old pensioner coaxed into singing in a chorus; it's called Unfinished Song. "Alfie," the original one, not the duplicate, Michael Caine, took time off between Batman butler gigs to play a similar character in John Crowley's 2008 Is Anybody There? It's a sad, lackluster but well-acted little film about the difficulty of moving to an institution for oldsters. More to the point, since Quartet, 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman's directing debut (but he's a mere youngster!) is about a very unusual retirement home, we think of the recent (a bit too recent) John Madden's Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, concerning a group of old Brits who move to India in an effort to live out their last days on the cheap. This will not be a review in which I tell you which one of these two is better. Their premises are different but they both feature Maggie Smith, taking breaks from "Downton Abbey." Marigold has more famous actors. Quartet benefits from a cast packed with retired musicians and singers. Both films are charming, tame efforts with a touch of humor, arguably a bigger touch in the case of Marigold, along with more thespian firepower. But then Quartet has the nice music, which is a mixture of classical, opera, and old-fashioned music hall, the latter the best of the live performances by real song and dance vets. Quartet focuses on Beecham Manor, a retirement home for aging singers and musicians.

There are many ways of approaching old age, on screen, that is, and we're likely to see more and more of them. At one extreme there are profound and serious films, like Kurosawa's great masterpiece, the uplifting and enormously moving Ikiru. It's about an aging petty bureaucrat who learns he is dying, and finds one significant thing to which he dedicates his remaining months of life. Last year brought Haneke's Amour, dedicated to an old couple facing death. It's a bleak, perhaps even cruel film, but there is also a nobility and beauty about it. Some movies are somewhere in between, like Bergman's melancholy but ultimately soothing Wild Strawberries, or David Lynch's haunting The Straight Story. No doubt about the fact that Quartet, which is a film adaptation of Ronald Harwood's eponymous play, adapted by himself, is an approach to aging that fits with the lightweight, slightly sentimental entertainments about old people that don't totally avoid looking at the hard aspects of the end of life but considerably soften them. This is all about a famous opera singer whose pride makes her refuse for a while -- we know she'll give in -- to sing a quartet from Rigoletto for Beecham Manor's charity gala, staged annually on Verdi's birthday.

If you're going to make a movie about an old people's home, it seems like a good idea to look into what such places are actually like. This is why I like Is Anybody There?, which focuses on a boy who's grown up in such a home because his parents run one. This is also the case with Anthony Byrne's 2007 How About You. . . : it focuses on a family running a retirement home too, and dealing with the more recalcitrant and nutty inmates. Both these movies give you more of a feeling of being in a retirement home. The true workings of such a place are something that Marigold Hotel and Quartet studiously avoid. Marigold of course is just about its colorful oldsters. There is no retirement home, as such, only a hotel whose non-functioning telephones, missing doors, and dithering manager (played by Dev Patel) prove to be something of a problem.

What skews Quartet far from "reality" is "Beecham House," the "home" for aging musicians and singers. The whole film was shot at Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, near London, a stately home that the online encyclopedia tells us was, in the eighteenth century, "a royal residence of Princess Augusta, The Dowager Princess of Wales." Its interior and grounds have been magnificently maintained, which as Roger Ebert points out "suggests a multimillion-pound budget and isn’t going to be saved by a gala." This doubtless was not a problem of Harwood's stage play. Granted the humor pointed out by one of the characters of naming such a place for the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, whose family was wealthy from laxative pills, perhaps once much relied on by old people. But retired musicians and singers are generally impecunious. They might be supplied with respectable and pleasant surroundings for their dotage but not such grandeur as this. No attempt is even made to make Hedsor House look like a retirement home, or seem to be run like one. This is more like the grandest of grand bed-and-breakfasts.

Need one say that all the veteran actors (or musical performers) in Quartet, under the baton of Dustin Hoffman, hit their marks, and then some? Maggie Smith shows off her "basilisk stare" as the haughty but down on her luck diva Jean Horton. Her arrival surprises three of the residents very much, and deeply shocks one. Reggie (Tom Courtenay), once a great tenor, was briefly married to Jean, and her betrayal left him desolate; he never remarried. Cissy (Pauline Collins) and the randy Scot Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), along with Reggie and Jean, once sang in a celebrated production of Rigoletto. The prospect of staging a rematch of that opera's glorious Act III quartet "Bella figlia dell’amore" for the gala drives the egocentric impresario (and gala organizer) Cedric Livingston (a flamboyant, caftan-clad Michael Gambon) wild with excitement. The trouble is that Jean refuses, and there is the heavy emotional baggage linking and separating Jean and Reggie. That's all the plot the movie provides. The ample leftover time is filled with touring around the manor or focusing on the antics of Wilf, whose recent stroke has allegedly removed several kinds of self control, and Cissy, whose charming ditsiness is morphing into early dementia, or something else; medical details are best left to the several-times-repeated warning and nostrum of Bette Davis, "Growing old isn't for sissies." Spoiler alert: The movie fudges the ending, where the four get together for the Rigoletto quartet to climax the gala. In the play, reportedly, the four veterans lip-synch to the recording of their performance from the good old days. Here it's suggested all through that they're actually going to sing and this is why Jean is so unwilling. I have heard that during her (very long) retirement Rosa Ponselle, one of the greatest sopranos of the last century, used to sing at parties at her home in the Green Spring Valley of Maryland for a quarter of an hour and just for that time her voice was as beautiful as ever.

Quartet, debuted at Toronto and played in ten other small festivals. It opened in the UK 1 Jan. 2013; in the US, 11 Jan. France: 1 May.

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