I have been meaning for a while to write about the Dustin Hoffman-directed movie, Quartet, which we saw last week with friends. TBD readers will have noticed that I have been less attentive to the blog in recent days, in part because time has been hard to come by, in part because I'm embarked on a writing project whose size and intentions are not yet fully clear to me--though it's beginning to feel like a novel. I'm hesitant to commit to it quite yet as such; it has been a long time since I wrote one, and I'm not fully convinced that this will turn into one. We'll see.
In the meantime, "Quartet." Another lesson--as if I needed one!--in not listening to my prejudices. While Ellie had been keen to see it, I had shied away because what little I'd heard led me to suspect that it would be too sentimental and, knowing (or thinking to know!) Dustin Hoffman, too self-conscious and perhaps even a bit pompous. I was wrong, as I usually am when I allow my presumptions to make judgments for me. Once I had allowed Ellie to drag me there, I ended up loving the movie.
It's pretty simple in its basic, will-they or won't they plot. The setting is the retirement home of aging musicians, whose passions have not died with their physical debilities or their dexterity. The home is threatened with closure, for lack of adequate funding, and hopes are pinned on the annual gala to raise sufficient money to keep it running for another year.
Enter a diva in the person of Jean Horton (superbly acted by Maggie Smith; as are all the other major roles, and indeed the minor ones, played in many cases by the musicians themselves.) Her betrayed and stiffly unforgiving ex-husband, Reggie Paget (Tom Courteney) freezes up in horrified disdain at her arrival. Upon their reconciliation rests the success of a performance of the immensely difficult quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto. Jean refuses adamantly to sing--she is too old, her voice is lost; and Reggie refuses adamantly to melt. Nudged along by the other two quartet hopefuls, the ebullient, cheerfully lecherous Wilf Bond and the sassy Cissy ("old age is not for sissies") Robson, their tenuous rapprochement is constantly in question.
The film is in part a welcome look at old age as creative potential rather than mere decrepitude. The elderly are treated with humor, but also with respect, not only for their past achievements but also for their humanity. The film's compassion does not look down on them with pity, but with a sympathetic honesty and clarity. These musicians may have lost the blush of youth, but they have not lost the love of music that informed their lives, and continues to sustain them. So the film is also about music, a constant presence in their lives, as it is also in the soundtrack. It's a pleasure to go to a movie and not be bombarded by a constant blast of aggressive, pulsating sound that offends both the ears and the intelligence that lies between them. Music, here, is an expression of a more refined intelligence, and a sensitivity that soothes and challenges with its complexity.
It's also a film about forgiveness, about mutual tolerance, and the persistence of love. I apologize to Dustin Hoffman for having done him an injustice: there is not sentimentality here--but a great deal of sentiment. His film is a rare feat of gratification for both the senses and the emotions, as well as for the intellect. It's a film that I'd be happy to sit through again.