We find three friends living in a nursing home for retired musicians. They have performed together, years ago, and remember those days fondly, but their days of entertaining are not quite over. The home puts on an annual show and everyone’s busy preparing for it, as well as preparing for a new resident – rumoured to be quite a star. And as she pulls up in a chauffeured car with her many furs and jewels, Maggie Smith is every inch a star.
The trio of friends is in upheaval – Cecily is ecstatic to reconnect with an old friend, but Reginald is angry to find his ex-wife now living in the same home. Reginald’s best friend and one-time best man Wilf (played by Billy Connolly) tries to keep the peace but soon they must all work together because age and failing health has jeopardized the show, and the quartet must replace the last act, currently hospitalized, to ensure enough money is raised to keep the home solvent for another year, although Jean (Smith) has vowed never to perform in public again.
Okay, so the plot is predictable. Will they sing together once again? Of course they will. We’d be watching four more amenable geezers otherwise. The meat of the movie is more in the subplot, the pain between Reginald and Jean and their heartbreak still palpable after all these years. The joy of this movie is seeing all of these musicians, in the “encore” of their lives, still burning with passion for their craft. Even with dementia creeping in, music is the last thing to be forgotten. Director Dustin Hoffman does a lovely job juxtaposing the ailing bodies with spirited music, arthritic fingers still finding all the right notes, voices cracking with age but still filled with dignity and resonance.
Of course Billy Connolly injects a lot of energy and charisma into the film, providing lots of light counterpoints. It’s an enjoyable film that gives you lots to admire. I particularly enjoyed that the supporting cast is made up of actual retired stage performers (check the credits for their past work). Oftentimes when watching a British film, it’s like watching a reunion of old friends. When Maggie Smith appeared, I was watching over her shoulder for Penelope Wilton, who never appeared, but the ghost of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a bit of a specter in this movie, and anyone who enjoyed that one will find satisfaction in Quartet.
p.s. If you enjoy this movie, and maybe even if you don’t, you should check out Young at Heart (2007), a documentary about an elderly chorus group who enjoys singing rock, punk, and all kinds of unexpected tunes. Really good stuff.