I am of the age where I am very sensitive to Ageism and what I consider stereotypical portrayals of the elderly and their mental “failings”. One in eight seniors – particularly “upper seniors” (above 80 years old) has Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia. Forgetfulness has become a joke in many films and people in the audience have a good chuckle over "memory loss" humor. Quartet, a slight film, affectionately directed by Dustin Hoffman, though well intentioned, takes advantage of this aspect of “amusement” through the behavior of some of his personalities – lively but also predictably typecast. A sadness pervades the movie, even if laced with comic situations and light-heartedness.
The drama takes place in Beecham House for Retired Musicians and involves the need to raise money through a Gala Event to keep the Home solvent for the residents to continue living there. The Quartet in the film are made up of four opera singers who were luminaries in the past planning to sing Act 3 quartet (“Bella figlia dell’amore”) from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Part of the plot revolves around getting one egocentric diva, Maggie Smith whose presence is a catalyst for emotional disruption, to join the other three in this endeavor, knowing that her presence would bring in patronage and much needed funding.
The movie focuses on professional and personal relationships past and present – the vagaries of aging and the sentiment that there is a need for camaraderie and supportive relationships at the end years of one’s life. The inhabitants are all getting older, but of course there is still a future ahead of them. Most of the residents are opera singers and classical musicians, and one of the most enjoyable highlights of Quartet was listening to them rehearse and interact with one another in a very idyllic physical environment which often belied their own physical impairments.
Dustin Hoffman is now 75 and this movie addresses the passing of time, often with sympathy but also too often with banal characterizations. He has compiled a terrific cast of actors – Maggie Smith, the imperious Michael Gambon, an excellent “still-wild-after-all-these-years” Billy Connolly, the perky Pauline Collins, and Tom Courtenay who made a powerful impression on me when in 1962 I saw him in Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner. To be honest I would not have recognized him today had I not known who this actor was. And that is the crux of Quartet. Does being advanced in years erase the memory of our achievements? I don’t think so. I believe that our life stories change and alter who we are, bringing us new challenges, richness, and the pathos that every one of us must struggle with.