Maggie Smith showcase is a golden years gem.
by Christian Baines
With its glamorous portrayal of an extravagant home for retired musicians and a somewhat glossed-over take on the health issues facing its aged residents, Quartet is no less a fine old English fantasy than Harry Potter – complete with Michael Gambon, with wand (or at least, baton) in hand. But realism’s not really the point here, is it?
Make no mistake, Quartet is fluff. But like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel before it, it is triumphant fluff, making up for its idealized visions of old age by instead exploring the still-open wounds to its characters’ hearts. In doing so, it brings forth perhaps the most extraordinary performance of Maggie Smith’s career, and that’s not praise to be thrown about lightly.
The quartet from Rigoletto, sung by four of the greatest singers in British operatic history.
As former opera star Jean Horton, Smith faces the unappetizing prospect of living out her days at Beecham House, and the even less appealing prospect of spending them in close proximity to her ex-husband Reg (Tom Courtenay), who is even less pleased about the idea. In what is probably a masterstroke of BS-ex machina, Beecham faces potential closure if its upcoming gala cannot raise enough money, and its cantankerous director (Gambon), knows just the thing. The quartet from Rigoletto, sung by four of the greatest singers in British operatic history.
They’re joined by Billy Connolly as Wilf, which sees Connolly largely playing a more randy, less foul-mouthed version of himself (Aside: Stand by for one of the most memorable deliveries of the f-bomb on film in recent memory – and it’s not from Connolly). Rounding out the group is Cissy, a wonderful performance by Pauline Collins, and the only character to truly embody the concerns all the characters share about the ugly side of aging – in particular, degrading mental health. One particularly tense scene she shares with Smith is Quartet at its most electrifying.
Predominantly, however, this is Smith’s show, a fact abundantly clear from her unsettling taxi journey to Beecham. The moment’s subtlety is a credit both to Smith and Ronald Harwood’s script (originally his stage play), but its effect is devastatingly profound, setting the tone for the entire film. From that point forward, Smith’s performance speaks volumes of Jean Horton’s every thought, desire and regret, to the point the audience feels almost as though there’s as much story being told that’s not depicted, than there is on screen.
Forgive its occasional lapses into crowd-pleasing twee and accept that Quartet is an unabashed play to the Marigold Hotel crowd, and you’ll enjoy a true British gem.
Quartet debuted at TIFF 2012 and is currently in cinemas.