TIFF: Quartet (****)


Love him or hate him, you have got to give the man credit. How many times has Harvey Weinstein been down, how many times has he been counted out of the film game and yet here he is at TIFF with several films that are going to be heard come Oscar time. Not one, not two, but more. Did anyone ever think after he and brother Bob left Disney, hell, were booted out, that they would rise like a phoenix to become more powerful, more interesting than they were before?? Beyond The Master and The Silver Lining Playbook, they have Django Unchained coming in December, all three to be heard from in the Oscar race, and now with the right push (which it will get) and the right sort of attention from the the Academy, which Harvey will assure it gets, we have Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s directing debut.  In his book, Dirty Little Pictures, writing Peter Biskind painted a controversial portrait of Weinstein, arrogant, bombastic, abusive, and entitled, yet brilliant at getting a film seen by the right people or taking the risk of making a film for all the right reasons. What he and his brother Bob have done with The Weinstein Company is nothing short of a miracle, but they have done it and in a very short time. They make the movies exciting, and as long as they are with us, we know that there will be something coming from them worth seeing.

In the late seventies Dustin Hoffman began directing a film that would be his debut behind the camera. However part way through, still very early in production the actor realized that helming the film was hindering his performance in front of the camera, and that was not acceptable to the actor. He begged off directing and brought in his friend, Broadway director Ulu Grosbard, very much an actor’s director who would later director direct True Confessions (1981), his best film. Straight Time (1978) the film they created together contains one of Hoffman’s very best performances, but the subject matter was bleak, and the studio dropped the ball in its handling of the film’s release. Too bad, Hoffman is brilliant.

His adoration and obsession with the art and craft of acting has followed him throughout his career. As an actor he has always sought the truth, and made enemies doing it, though no one could deny the art. That love for acting is evident in every frame of Quartet, his official debut as a director as he guides legendary British actors through Ronald Harwood’s classy adaptation of his own play. Back in 1983 Harwood wrote the adaptation to his fine play The Dresser (1983) which shares a great deal with Quartet in its depiction of the struggles with growing old. Harwood won the Academy Award for scripting Roman Polanski’s The Pianist (2002), but here does his finest work.

In lovely Beachum House, nestled in the pretty English countryside, with birds chirping and a warm atmosphere in the home, we encounter a group of artists living out their twilight years together. They are musician and singers, their bodies and minds beginning to show the ravages of old age, yet they delight in their company, and with their work. Not idle, nor feeble, they play constantly and are open to new ideas. To the youth there is available a class that compares classical opera to modern rap, the instructor, Reginald (Tom Courtenay) refusing to allow his mind to close. Though they move slower than in their youth, though arthritis cripples their hands, and the memories may not be as sharp as they once were they are dedicated to their art form. Randy old Wilf (Billy Connelly) has never lost his sex drive and carries on with Cissy (Pauline Collins) when she allows it. Into the home comes Jean (Maggie Smith) an arrogant, haughty diva holding on to her past reputation, struggling with the fact she is old. Unhappy to be part of the home, she refuses any contact with the others, until they invite her to sing, at which she refuses but slowly comes around. Making matters worse, is the fact she and Reginald were once married and he has never forgiven her for cheating on him and ending their marriage. Each year on the birthday of Verdi, the musicians in the home stage a benefit concert in which all take part to raise funds to keep the home going. Will old grievances keep the show from going on? Or will their love for their art allow them to come together?

Under Hoffman’s watchful eye, the actors find the humor in the script (and there is much) but also the drama and tragedy of growing old. Each gives a fine performance though it is Maggie Smith who shines like a rare treasure in the film, with a performance that caps her impressive career. Smith is nothing short of miraculous in the role, and should leap into the race for the Academy Award for Best Actress. Connolly and Courtenay are both excellent in smaller roles, though Michael Gambon steals the film as the pompous opera director who is batty as hell. In creating their music they find the fire that burned bright in their youth and for the time that they are creating, they are no longer old, the music transports them back to their youth, allowing them to feel alive once again. Watching Smith shoot someone a mere gaze that withers them, Connolly romp through the film horny as hell, or Gambon arrogantly look at someone who has questioned him is priceless. And Courtenay, full of anger and resentment slowly melts as the sheer love of his art thaws him and he learns to forgive.

Quartet benefits I think from having a director who has more in common with the characters in the film than he likes to admit. Yet Hoffman knows that age is nothing to fear, it comes to us all, and has been doing so since the beginning of time. We cannot stop it, but rather give in and enjoy life while it lasts. I would think that understanding gives the film its energy and humor. An absolute delight, a pleasant surprise, and a film that was simply a privilege to watch. Just brilliant, and though it will be a tough sell to younger audiences, the over forty crowd, and film buffs will adore it.