'Old age ain't no place for sissies," Bette Davis once famously observed. In Quartet, set in a Georgian-style mansion on a lovely patch of English countryside, the "ain't" has been changed to a more proper "is not." But still, the point is clear: Even here at Beecham House, a stately home for retired musicians, getting old is a challenge.
The body breaks down, and sometimes the mind. And memories of past glory rush back to remind you that there's not much glory happening at present.
Adapted by Ron Harwood from his stage play, and directed - in a smart and accomplished debut - by Dustin Hoffman, Quartet is a charming and poignant investigation into the autumn years in which four friends, former opera company stars, come together to put on a show. Of course, there are obstacles to surmount along the way: Jean Horton (the ever droll and beguiling Maggie Smith), a reluctant new arrival at Beecham House, long ago broke the heart of Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), a dapper chap who is not happy to see Jean again.
Meanwhile, the bubbly Cissy (Pauline Collins) is showing signs of Alzheimer's - forgetfulness, disorientation - and the randy Wilf (Billy Connolly) has prostate issues. A hopeless flirt, Wilf's nonstop come-ons to Beecham's female staff, and to the attractive young doctor who runs the place (Sheridan Smith), would be offensive if his lechery weren't so benign. A man with a waggish smile and a Scottish brogue can be forgiven much.
Parading a troupe of eccentric seniors across the screen can be treacherous work. The danger of mawkishness, of triteness, of impossible cuteness is high. But Hoffman, calling upon decades of acting experience, and surrounding himself with the likes of Smith and Courtenay, Collins and Connolly (and Michael Gambon, in a supporting role, sporting a colorful robe de chambre), keeps things from getting mushy. Well, mostly.
Quartet shows us how art illuminates our lives, and shows us artists and performers who can still, after all these years, do some illuminating. There's a pivotal scene midway, when the divaesque Jean, determined not to participate in a performance from Rigoletto for the Beecham House gala concert, encounters an old friend (Michael Byrne) lying sick in bed. He urges her to "take part," to engage. "The only alternative," he suggests, "is to be guest of honor at the crematorium."
And that, in the end, is what Quartet is about: determined engagement, embracing music and theater and the arts, and embracing the friends and loved ones you have around you. And in Wilf's case, embracing the French maid, too, if he can find the occasion to do so.