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Thursday, March 7, 2013 02:54 am

Quartet a showcase for veteran English cast

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Pauline Collins as Cissy Robson and Maggie Smith as Jean Horton in Quartet.

Sporting much the same vibe that made The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel a surprise hit and even featuring one of the stars of that sleeper, Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet is a pleasant enough diversion that gets by on the charm of its actors and the rapid pace the filmmaker adapts for his maiden voyage behind the camera. To be sure, there are no major surprises here where the plot of the film is concerned. It takes its cue from the Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney “Hey, let’s put on a show!” flicks of yesteryear. No, more than anything this is an actor’s and a singer’s showcase. The script by Ronald Harwood deals with a retirement home for English musicians and features many veterans from the world of international opera.

The residents at Beecham House rely on routine and order. They have a set schedule every day and it’s understood that those who were stars in their heyday are treated just a bit better than those whose job it was to back them up. However, things are about to be turned upside down when diva extraordinaire Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) becomes a resident. Never one to let anyone forget how magnificent she was (“I never took less than 12 curtain calls.”), her presence ruffles more than a few feathers but none more so than those of her ex-husband Reggie (Tom Courtenay). Distraught over her residency, he attempts to keep his distance from the one who broke his heart and seeks the advice of his dearest friend, eternal flirt Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly). He’s unable to offer much solace. He’s far more concerned with the condition of his wife, Cissy (Pauline Collins) who’s showing signs of dementia. And while they all have to contend with personal issues, they have a more pressing concern. They and the other residents must prepare for the annual Verdi gala, an event that the home relies on so that its doors can stay open.

As I say, the film is as predictable as the sun rising in the east but what makes it enjoyable is the sincerity of the cast to put this over. It goes without saying that Connolly dominates nearly every scene he’s in what with his oversized personality and his character’s penchant for making outlandish statements at the drop of a hat and flirting with any female with a pulse. This sort of a performance is as natural as water off a duck’s back for the veteran actor but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable to watch. Collins is quite touching, bringing a reserved poignancy as Cissy tries to hang on to her last thread of sanity. Courtenay and Smith are fine as well and when the four are on screen together, the film comes to life.

The conclusion is a bit too pat. The resolution to the main conflict seemingly dissolves into thin air. However, Hoffman provides a light touch, only devoting brief amounts of time to the specter of death that’s looming over all of the characters. More melancholy than maudlin, Quartet is a pleasant enough diversion and provides a showcase for the four principals who each prove that age hasn’t dulled any of their gifts.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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