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August 31, 2013
Shark Bite Theatre
Quartet: Not The Same Old Song
by Andrew E. Lindsay

It has been suggested that to say that youth is better than old age is like saying the view is better at the bottom of the flagpole than at the top. Maybe it’s a natural side effect of getting older myself, but the older I get, the more interesting older people are to me. Maybe it’s an increasing appreciation for their accomplishments, maybe it’s an acknowledgement of their life experiences and the wisdom that wreaks, but whatever it is, I find stories about seniors simply fascinating.

So much about Hollywood is wrapped up in idolizing youthfulness, or at least some idealized illusion of youthfulness. Whether it’s the stories about angst-filled teenagers looking for their place in the world while wrestling with powerful impulses of love and lust, or whether it’s the actors themselves who try to hold onto the appearance of youth through cosmetics, fashion, surgery, and so on, even after the natural aging process has pushed them well past their physical prime.

Ironically, moviemakers have long utilized older actors with youthful faces to play younger parts, in part because their life experiences give them more perspective and depth. Many a parent has reminded their own children that they know far more about being teenagers than their kids do about being adults. Frustrating as it is for a kid to hear, it’s still true. The older you get, the more pieces of life’s puzzle you fit together, and the clearer the picture gets. Sure, the haircuts change, the music gets louder, technology evolves, but the more these things change, the more we stay the same.

Quartet is the story of a group of people whose advancing years have begun to betray them physically, even while their passions and talents and memories collected over a lifetime remain the driving force in their day-to-day existence. The setting is an English home for retired musicians, populated by a generally amicable, cacophonous collection of former professional performers, a few of them of great renown.

Every year on the anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, the home, Beecham House, holds a benefit concert to raise money for the general upkeep of the estate. As the anticipated event approaches this year, a new resident causes a bit of extra excitement. Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) is a former opera singing diva who hasn’t sung in years, and her arrival at the home evokes mixed reactions from the residents.

Many are thrilled to have a performer of her stature and talent join them, but Reggie (Tom Courtenay) is quite angry that she has come. As it turns out, they were once married, many years ago, and there are some deep, unhealed wounds that remain from that relationship. Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) is an old friend and colleague who welcomes her warmly, but she is also suffering from early signs of dementia, which complicate her life in many ways, some frustrating and some amusing. Rounding out their group is rascally Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly), and the three of them conspire to convince Jean to join them in a quartet to perform at the gala benefit.

Many years before, this foursome performed Rigoletto’s Bella Figlia dell’Amore, before Jean’s solo career shot her into the stratosphere, and before her marriage to Reggie ended tragically. A lot of water has passed under their collective bridges since then, and Jean initially has no intention of singing again at all, let alone with this group of her estranged friends.

What transpires in Ronald Harwood’s screenplay under the deft direction of a 75-year-old newcomer named Dustin Hoffman is a warm and honest story of forgiveness and hope and lost love regained. There is plenty of humor woven throughout this tale, and there is even more wonderful music. Most of Quartet’s supporting cast are, in real life, actual world-renowned musicians and performers (don’t miss the end credits for some charming then-and-now photos).

I loved how tenderly Hoffman reveals the levels of joy and heartbreak that simmer below the surface of these engaging senior citizens, which, because of their passions and pathologies, also occasionally boil over in public. Aging also does not automatically erase character flaws or assuage egos, nor does it necessarily extinguish libido or increase serenity. Bodies decay and break down, but the soul of the individual continues its eternal progression even as gravity tries to confine it.

This is decidedly a grownup movie, and there are two F-bombs snuck in there. However, I think it’s fair to say that both of them are preceded by a warning from the character saying, “I’m going to say something rude,” so it’s not really shocking when they come out with it. Also, for some reason, whenever I hear old people with English accents swear, it never seems to sound as naughty somehow. But that’s a different issue entirely.

There are many wonderful moments in this film, and some insightful ones as well. There are moments when we feel the burden of years that is borne by people who still have much to offer but are limited by life’s relentless march toward the grave. There are moments when younger generations seem to feel that they have more of a claim on the arts than their elders, and there are moments when truth and honesty transcend generational divisions. And there are moments when forgiveness and redemption remind us all that it is never too late to sing a new song.

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