There is something splendid about seeing fine actors at the top of their game, still nailing it — in a movie about older performers, still nailing it. Last year, it was Maggie Smith in “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” On television, she is the highlight of the world’s favorite television series, “Downton Abbey.” And now, the two-time Oscar winner continues her total world domination as the diva in “Quartet,” an endearing story of an assisted living facility for retired musicians and singers.
The setting is intriguing, a grand but decaying assisted living facility for retired musicians and singers. First-time director Dustin Hoffman and his luminous cast of actors bring wit, dignity, and all their years of experience to bring the characters to life far in excess of the predictable plot and one-infirmity-to-a-character screenplay that seems to have been inspired by “The Golden Girls.” Like Sophia, Wilf (Billy Connelly) has an age-related impairment of his impulse control, and because he is old, his constant references to sex and attempts to hit on any female he sees are supposed to be funny. Connelly makes Wilf far more appealing than that description contemplates but showing us the character’s vulnerability and good spirits in the face of the loss of control of what he says and of his ability to be the kind of man who has access to opportunities for passion.
The Rose of the group is Cissy, played by one of my favorite actresses, Pauline Collins (the original “Upstairs Downstairs,” “No Honestly,” “Shirley Valentine”). She struggles with forgetfulness but has a sweet nature. Then there’s stern Reggie (beautifully played by Tom Courteney of “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner” and “Doctor Zhivago”), the Dorothy figure, and the Blanche character — the free spirited diva Jean (Maggie Smith), whose arrival creates opportunities and stirs up old conflicts, rivalries, and hurts.
The beloved sanctuary is in financial trouble. The only thing that can save it is the annual fund-raiser concert. If Jean will agree to re-create one of her greatest triumphs, the quartet from “Rigoletto,” performed with Wilf, Reggie, and Cissy, under the direction of the magisterial, caftan-wearing Cedric (Michael Gambon), they could sell enough tickets to keep it going. But Jean does not want to perform. She does not want to be there. She does not want to be old.
There is more than one way to rage against the dying of the light. There is something ineffably touching about the way that “the show must go on” takes on a deeper meaning for these old troupers, both on and off-screen.
Parents should know that this film has strong language and crude humor as well as issues of aging and mortality.
Family discussion: Did this movie make you think differently about getting older? How? Who surprised you the most?
If you like this, try: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Meeting Venus” and some of the earlier work of these stars, including “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,” “Shirley Valentine” and “Mrs. Brown”