The Catholic Catalogue generally sticks with The Trinity, but, this time, at least, we’re looking at another configuration and giving a full-throated endorsement to Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, the engaging, and grown-up, movie, “The Quartet.”
We say “full-throated” because the movie involves a British home for retired musicians. There are opera stars, cellists, clairenetists, pianists, some old vaudevilians and at least one big band era trumpet player. (Stick around for the closing credits and see if you guessed the REAL musicians correctly.)
It’s an old story: The Beecham Home is in trouble and faces closure. The solution? Think Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney: “LET’S PUT ON A SHOW!” The residents saw those pictures, too. As the movie opens, they’re planning a fund raising gala for Verdi’s birthday. A flamboyant producer is assembling his cast, when in comes an opera superstar, played by Maggie Smith, who has stopped performing out of fear that she will humiliate herself in front of an audience.
She arrives at the home to find her three former quartet members (played by Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and and Pauline Collins) already in residence. This trio has maintained a strong friendship. They eat together and walk together and look after one another. Age has taken its tolls, in memory, looks and abilities, but their friendship is ever fresh and young. Smith’s character is the odd one out, because, as we learned, she and Courtenay’s character were married once, briefly, long ago. Her foolish out-of-town fling destroyed their marriage and broke his heart.
You can see where this is going: Will the two old lovers reconcile? Will the quartet get back together and save the Beecham Home? You can also see where a sunrise or sunset is going, and that doesn’t diminish the delight.
Connolly plays a charming man with frontal lobe damage, whose mental filter is but a memory. He can not refrain, it seems, either from commenting on the beauty of every woman he meets – commenting and propositioning – or from relieving himself on every greenwood tree and bush. Sounds disgusting, but it isn’t. Connolly makes these deficits a defiant hymn to life and vigor and every good gift of the human body and the human appetite. You find yourself halfway hoping some young nurse will actually take him up on one of his randy offers.
Collins plays a woman whose mind is drifting slowly away. She keeps what she can, but, like a wise woman, what she can keep is what she needs to keep: her friends and her music. Her plight is familiar to anyone caring for an elderly friend or relation, but this movie allows the possibility of beauty, even here, to shine through.
And Courtenay’s quiet longing reminds us that love belongs not to an age, but to the ages, to all of us, who can still see, who can still hope, who can still love. We see his reaching, his movement, always, into life when he teaches a class of teens about the similarities and differences between rap and opera (In opera, when the man is stabbed, he sings. In rap, same man, same terrible fate, but he talks.)
Who cares that you know where it is going to end? These characters are going to age and suffer and die, but they’re going to do it together, and they’re going to do it singing. (Mild sexuality and some brief, but, emphatic profanity, make this a movie for older teens and adults.)