Quartet was written by Ronald Harwood for the stage, who consequently adapted it for the screen. It follows the lives of four opera singers, living in a retirement home for musicians. They overcome the past, as well as the present, to come together once more to share their life long passion of music. It is evident that the script was written for the stage, as the cinematic possibilities are limited and the film struggles to break out of its theatrical mould. Dustin Hoffman, in his directorial debut, focuses instead on the fantastic characters – much as the script surely does.
However, the continual establishing shots of the countryside where the retirement home is situated perfectly set the mood of the film. They establish the staidness of the characters, but add warmth to them as well. The soundtrack is a treat for any fan of classical music and opera, but could have been emphasised more. Considering Verdi is the focus of the concert the quartet prepare for, very little attention is paid to him or his music.
The film’s strength lies in its characters and the actors portraying them – some of the greatest stars of the stage and screen. Billy Connolly’s Wilf Bond is gleefully mischievous and Maggie Smith, as the uptight Jean Horton, is as flawless as ever. The real stand-outs though are Tom Courtenay as Reg Paget and Pauline Collins as Cissy Robson. While all the characters are infused with a sad vulnerability, which they all portray most poignantly, it is particularly moving in the latter two performances. They all have wonderful moments of humour too, often entertainingly saucy, and are surrounded by a spectacular supporting cast; one of the most entertaining being the frustratingly funny and forgetful Cedric Livingstone, performed with aplomb by the indefatigable Michael Gambon.
The age and circumstances of the characters may alienate a younger audience, purely due to the fact that they will not easily relate to them; but there is a wonderful attempt to reconcile the age gap as Reg teaches a class of young musicians. It is an endearing scene, particularly when he explains opera to a teenager who, in turn, explains rap and hip hop to Reg. Nevertheless, it remains a film aimed squarely at people over 70 and living in a retirement home, and perpetuates every Western stereotype about old age. Having said that it is sweet and amusing in its own right and despite being an insulated view of old age, it is honest storytelling nonetheless.