To show affection is to comfort oneself — From Kobayashi, Bonsai Miniature Potted Trees
“The convivium alone … rebuilds limbs, revives humours, restores spirit, delights senses, fosters and awakens reason. The convivium is rest from labours release from cares and nourishment of genius; it is the demonstration of love and splendour, the food of good will, the seasoning of friendship, the leavening of grace and the solace of life.” Letter 42 to Bernardo Bembo, in The Letters of Marsilio Ficino, Vol. 2 (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1918), p. 51, Ficino
We last see Beecham house [Hedsor house], home for retired musicians, lit up at night
Dear friends and readers,
On our way to this film Izzy and I expected another The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, another comic treatment of elderly people coping with retirement, old age, the onset of illnesses which precede death, having only a short time left. It is that and like Best Exotic Marigold, it has a superb cast, one of whom at least (Maggie Smith) has become familiar to many as the wry Dowager in Downton Abbey. Or (I thought) it might be like the Abbey with a central mansion-house, surrounding woods, sequences of intelligent dramatic interaction, and it is that too — Dustin Hoffman as director practices the slow pace, glowing use of sun- and moonlight. The doctor figure, Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith) even resembles Joanne Froggart (Anna Smith Bates) in accent, gestures, stalwart charity:
But there the resemblance ends. The inner core of Best Exotic is irretrievable disillusion and real problems making ends meet. Unlike Downton, Quartet is not a defense of hierarchy. It’s not the house that’s wonderful; it’s what goes on in it. Quartet is a semi-egalitarian fairy tale: Two opera singers whose marriage went sour decades ago meet, after intensely painful encounters (which however don’t go on for that long), find they still love, miraculously sing the quartet from Rigoletto with precisely the same people they once sung it with to a highly charitable audience willing to buy tickets to help rescue the enterprise from bankruptcy.
What makes us accept this improbable fluff is a continual playfulness which emerges in all sorts of deprecating jokes about old-age (and sex, and incapabilities, and dignity), everyone making music all over the house as they work towards their fund-raising gala.
Perhaps a clue to the serious moral feel of the piece is in the real pathos in some of the people: Pauline Collins captures a sharp note of need in the way she is so eager for everyone to like her and get along. Michael Gambon is amusing as Cedric, the impresario-dictator who bullies her with ease, but he has not given up his older role yet.
The movie is about aging: it’s about being true to what you were despite decrepitude. Not to worry you are not as beautiful, cannot do what you did the way you once did. Let go. Return to it as best you can. Remember. And the credits reinforce this by showing us the musicians and singers in the movie next to photos of them 40-50 years ago, and ending on our principles.
It’s not all opera; there’s music hall. Once a week, Reg lectures to young people in the area about his music and they teach him about rap, hip hop and perhaps rock n’ roll too (though that’s old hat here). He says opera is all about the music, about expressing the inner self, and reprehends how it has been captured by the rich, and set up to intimidate. We see residents dancing all sorts of dances, young people jumping into the bushes (to make love), the doctor smokes on the side quietly in the greenhouse. But the music is mostly opera, mostly Verdi, and Quartet may be regarded as a celebration of operatic song.
For once the trailer is not a mis-characterization except of course the film is altogether quieter for long stretches to allow for relationships to develop, people to fall sick and learn lessons in forgiveness, humility, not to omit kindness. Maggie Smith is not just a jokester (which she is too much of in Downton), but a lonely woman looking for friends (as are they all) and something with which to replace what’s lost; Smith’s talents not given much play in Downton Abbey come out here (see her Bed Among Lentils for these on brilliant moving display).
The movie based on a play by Ronald Harwood; there is apparently a retirement home for musicians in Italy, Casa Verdi, where (like this Beecham house, named after a benefactor, Sir Thomas Beecham) each year a Verdi gala is put on. The quartet in question, with which the film ends in celebration is from Rigoletto.
Izzy and I arrived just as the movie was starting and had to sit 4 rows from the front: the auditorium was crowded. People applauded when it was over, and the credits begin to roll.
I recommend going. It just avoids the cliches of admirable facing-up in the face of adversity to evoke human and bitter moments. I was all anxiety lest everyone not make it to the last scene. You might say this is Dustin Hoffman’s Act 2 of Last Chance Harvey. There we had the 50 year old couple going for a long-night’s romantic walk; here we have the 70 to 80 year olds not able to do that anymore so making music and singing while there’s still time left. This is Hoffman’s vision of his art now:
Move over Woody Allen and Julie Delpy (Two Days in Paris).