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Beecham House is the place where music—in the form of aging musicians, singers, and performers—comes to die. It is also a place were music comes alive. From the comedic yet reverent tone of the opening scene, where the pensioners practice a well-known duet from Verdi’s La Traviata en masse to prepare for their annual fundraising concert to the opera appreciation classes given by Reginald “Reggie” Paget (Tom Courtenay) to local teenagers, the film takes its viewers through the best, brightest, and boldest moments in operas as lived through the memories and experiences of its ageing stars.
Centered around the reformation of a once-famous quartet of renown opera singers broken apart by doubt and infidelity, the plot turns on the reconciliation of a heartbroken Reggie and a rueful Jean Horton (Dame Maggie Smith) as well as on Horton’s conception of herself as a performer. Aging, alone, and out of practice, she wonders whether she will be able to stand unassisted, whether she can hit the highest notes that mark her part in the quartet, and whether, after all these years, she will still be great. Driven by her embittered rivalry with Ann Langley (the resplendent Dame Gwenyth Jones)—a dramatic-type worthy of opera—and by her friendship with Cecily “Cissy” Robson (Pauline Collins)—afflicted quite tragically by dementia—Horton eventually finds a home in the eccentric community she expects at first to loathe.
Careful to mix the comic with the tragic, the high with the low, Quartet is impressive for its rather democratic treatment of opera. While the concert’s director Cedric Livingstone (Michael Gambon) disdains the Gilbert and Sullivan set pieces performed and preferred by many of the residents, we are meant to laugh at his rigid conception of opera and delight in the many light-hearted pieces, such as Trevor Peacock’s and David Ryall’s rendition of “Are You Having Any Fun?”, that divert from the tension of the main romantic narrative. But behind the lyrics of this humorous ditty lie the serious concerns of old age: “what good is what you’ve got if you’re not having any fun?” Enter Wilfred “Wilf” Bond (Billy Connolly), the aging flirt whose escapades range from acquiring clandestine whisky to chasing off-limits and inappropriate skirt, and we get the impression that having fun is the best remedy for geriatric malaise.
As fun and emotional as Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s magnificent directorial debut is, throughout the film one cannot help but be reminded that the world of Beecham House, with its dedicated care staff, its private, luxurious rooms, and its amiable community, is a world of fantasy. In reality, the world of elder care is more often than not bereft of the level of care and dignity displayed in this film. We may glow with a sympathetic pride when we see the long-awaited quartet take the stage together in the final scene of the film; however, a note of sadness resonates long after the music fades—we wish every one could find such a place, such a strength, such a camaraderie in their dotage. When the heart-rending “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Verdi’s Rigoletto is finally performed, our real pleasure comes from a “who’s who” montage of luminous performers and musicians, each of whom graced the film not at the zenith of their careers, but at the height of our nostalgia for them.
Laura Ludtke is reading for a DPhil in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.