$14.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $14.00.
It is not often that an actor in late middle age makes his directorial debut with a hit, but kudos to 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman for “Quartet.” It is not only intelligent, intelligible, funny, brilliantly cast, superbly played, and well made, but it is in the running for the feel-good movie of 2012 and perhaps 2013. It made the festival circuit in 2012 and got limited release in New York — just in time for 2013 award eligibility. It went into limited US release on 11 January 2013.
Skein features retired musicians living at “Beecham House” (founded by orchestra conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as a home for older thesps down on their luck) not far from London trying to raise money to keep their home open. They do so with an annual gala benefit on Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, in which the aging talents perform. It’s sort of a Geritol generation version of Mickey and Judy putting on a show — except that these are real professionals who have never shed their skin — with all that it entails in terms of artistic differences, petty jealousies, and egos.
There is a hitch. Tenor Frank White (Michael Byrne) pulls out of the show due to illness. He was the draw. Ticket sales fall off 60%. What to do? Answer: The Quartet from Verdi’s “Riggoletto.” But how? Make way for the subplot.
Pic has four principals: Maggie Smith as soprano Jean Horton, Tom Courtenay as tenor Reginald Paget, comic actor and singer Billy Connolly as baritone Wilfred Bond, and Pauline Collins as retired opera star Cissy Robson. Decades earlier they sang the most famous version of the Quartet from “Riggoletto” ever recorded in England. Cissy spends a good deal of time listening to the CD re-issue.
So it is suggested to Michael Gambon, as flamboyant director Cedric (see-drick, not said-rick — it’s a running joke) Livingston, who quickly claims credit for it as his own idea, that the four reprise their most famous work.
“Think of the publicity,” Livingston says. “We have four of the finest singers in English operatic history….
“It would be like Maria Callas making a comeback!”
But before plot reaches that fine point, the ointment’s fly is revealed. Jean Horton, a diva, now broke, has arrived at Beecham House for the first time, to an ovation. She had quit singing years earlier out of fear of competing against herself. The rub is that Reginald Paget is one of her ex-husbands. She got around. He was a one-woman man. One of her flings ended their marriage. When Reggie learns of Jean’s arrival he explodes at Beecham House director Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith). How could she possibly keep it from him that his ex-wife is moving in?! Give Courtenay credit for a performance that ranges from patient humility to explosive rage and everything in between — from charm to petulance — and finally to extreme confidence.
Jean is embarrassed at living on charity. Reggie is seeking a “dignified senility” in a sort of self-imposed prison. He is at Beecham house because his best friend, Wilf, had a stroke which left him somewhat bereft of self-censorship. Wilf (Connolly) is without question pic’s funniest character, flirtatious, ostentatious, gregarious, and a compulsive rule breaker. Punchlines spill from his lips. Reggie swears to Cogan that he will move out if Jean is to stay.
He then does his best to avoid Jean. She presses the issue and eventually breaks the ice after a good deal of hacking. The stage is now set to spring the trap. Wilf and Cissy are all for reprising the Quartet. Pauline Collins’ Cissy is a tad daft — a little short on short-term memory and Collins plays it delightfully. Reggie is a tougher nut to crack, but eventually is won over.
Jean is another story. Here is where pic could have descended into bathos, but in two confrontations, neither Smith nor Hoffman lets it happen. The Readers’ Digest version is this: Cissy visits Jean bearing flowers to apologize for trying to trick her into singing Gilda in the Quartet. Jean’s reaction is violent. Cissy ends up in the infirmary. Jean visits and finds Frank White, who urges her to take part in the benefit after saying, “What a fling we had!” What finally convinces Jean is word that rival Anne Langley (Dame Gwyneth Jones) will get the finale in place of the Quartet.
“Over my dead body!”
Auds can predict the rest. There are a few bumps along the way, largely contributed by Collins. Hoffman directs with an endearing gentleness toward the story and the thesps. It is almost as if he did the Vulcan Mind Meld with the cast and the screenwriter. The elderly performers, other than the four principals and Gambon, are, like Dame Gwyneth Jones, real actors, singers, musicians, and music hall performers in the sunset of their careers doing as characters in pic what they did for a living. Getting into character for them — including little bits of backstage backstabbing — must have been a walk in the park. Performances are utterly convincing. As the Quartet from “Riggoletto” resonates under the closing credits, Hoffman delivers a very nice touch. Credits are accompanied by photos of the cast in their heyday.
Sound recording is more than excellent. Ronald Harwood who penned both the screenplay and the legit play on which it is based, is spot on. Lensing by John de Borman is so good that one almost doesn’t notice the technique. Dario Marianelli’s score rises to the task of variations on some of the greatest music every written for the human voice. Andrew McAlpine’s design is beyond reproach. Barney Pilling worked wonders in the cutting room, especially regarding exposition, some of which is laid out in the way that reminds one of the final reel of “Day for Night,” edited by Martine Barraqué.
“Quartet” is rated PG-13 for some language and adult situations, none of which will poison the minds of children. Take them. They will leave the theater smiling and may even learn something about music. At 98 minutes it flies by, adhering to the Woody Allen rule.
* * *
But it’s not over yet… fooled you! The headline on this notice is “Love Among the Ruins.” It’s not just a comedy. It’s also a love story.
Spoiler alert! Read no further if you don’t want to know the end!
Some backstage banter and a little eavesdropping reveal that Reggie and Jean, who had not even seen each other since 1997 (pic is set in the present), still carry torches. Reggie even pulled out of performances when he learned that he would have to work with Jean. He’s a very old-fashioned guy who tries like heck to hide the heart he wears on his sleeve.
As the Quartet prepare to go onstage, Reggie, no longer the victim, but rather a striking tuxedoed presence, strong and powerful (Courtenay’s transformation is brilliant — one can imagine Reggie commanding the stage at Covent Garden in this scene, which is not possible at pic’s outset) responds to Jean’s observation, “We’re both very old,” with, “Then let’s get married.”
Now they are on stage, taking their opening bows.
Jean: “Were you serious?”
And then shot from backstage, their hands clasp in one of the most triumphal moments ever to end a movie. If your critic could bestow the Oscars, “Quartet” would win Best Picture and Hoffman would win Best Director. The actors are so good that it is impossible to say which one should win what at the expense of another.