Quartet (12A)


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Dir: Dustin Hoffman

With: Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins

Runtime: 98 minutes

BY my reckoning the combined age of the four main stars (Billy Connolly, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Tom Courtenay) in Quartet, Dustin Hoffman's gentle comedy, is 295. What madness is this? Where are the lasers and Lycra? Has someone called the age police to have these people arrested?

Nicholas Parsons, master of ceremonies on Just A Minute, said last year that you don't make jokes that are sexist, racist or about disability, but when it comes to old age it seems to be open season. It's the same with movies. You can show sex, violence, rock'n'roll and much, much, worse, but try making a film with older actors, or for older audiences, and watch the sneers roll in.

Things are meant to be changing. Faced with falling audiences in the US, Hollywood is discovering the silver dollar. What happens there – Hope Springs (Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) and Trouble With The Curve (Clint Eastwood) – happens here too, with the likes of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel enjoying terrific box office success. Call it The King's Speech effect.

Hoffman, making his directorial debut at the grand age of 75, doesn't just add a mature actor here or there. Working from the play by Ronald Harwood (adapted by Harwood for the screen) he has an entire cast of golden oldies, save for Sheridan Smith, who plays the doctor in charge of the home for retired opera singers.

While it is a welcome move by all concerned, it is a pity that, save for Maggie Smith's contribution, there was not more bite to the comedy. And while the script aims in general to rage against the dying of the light, it is not above being ever so slightly patronising to those it is trying to court. Unless you are particularly fond of jokes about weak bladders, that is, in which case come on in, the water's lovely.

The retirement home in Quartet makes Downton Abbey look like a cooncil bungalow. With grand rooms, sculpted gardens and cornices by the shed-load, it's the kind of place we'd all like to call our final home. But there is trouble in this tastefully furnished paradise. The home is being threatened with closure as it is too dear to run, so a special gala concert must be put on, with the residents to the fore.

While the drama of rehearsals, led by Michael Gambon playing impresario, takes place, a new arrival glides up to front door. Jean (Maggie Smith) was the grandest of opera dames, and cannot accept moving to the home or what she believes is the dimming of her talents. To complicate matters further, she was once married to another resident, Reginald (Tom Courtenay), a liaison that ended badly.

Reginald is best friends with Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Cissy (Pauline Collins). Wilf and Cissy want to get the old gang together again, including Reginald and Jean, for the gala, but Jean is having none of it.

That's about your lot as far as the plot goes. Quartet is a movie that relies on its performers, and Harwood's lines, to clinch the entertainment deal. He has a number of fine ones, and is never less than elegant in his telling of a joke or crafting of a speech.

Some of the cheesier lines are spoken by Connolly's character, who, as a result of a stroke, is meant to have no filter, especially when it comes to charming the ladies. Said ladies indulge him longer than I did. Courtney's Reginald is a charmer in his own way, being gentle, erudite and eccentric (he is fascinated by rap, for instance). Collins's Cissy is aptly named, being a goosy sort who couldn't win a fight against a cushion.

However, it is Dame Maggie who takes the picture, puts it ever so delicately in her handbag, and walks away. The Jean character, with her crushed hopes and smouldering regrets, has real depth to her, and Smith mines every single inch. The rest of them might repeat with glee Bette Davis's line that "old age is for cissies", but it is Smith who shows that is not, that it can be hard and lonely and humiliating without means and support.

Another bright star in the cast is the other Smith, Sheridan. Although she often has little more to do than twinkle indulgently, she is the kind of actor who, young as she is, can dominate a scene with minimum effort.

More of Dame Maggie's acidity would have made for a less sugary comedy. As it is, Quartet comes across at times as Luvvie Central, where, for all the clear-eyed attitudes to ageing, sentimentality is never far away. It is still a refreshing change, though. Now that the age barrier has been smashed, it's on to the next impossible dream: a film set in Glasgow that doesn't feature booze, drugs, fags, depression or probation officers. Imagine.