‘Quartet’ illustrates the possibility of second chances

Do you talk to people on buses and shuttles? I do. I once boarded a shuttle to LAX and sat next to an older woman who was absolutely glowing with excitement. Chatting with her, I learned she was a retired teacher and had recently gone back for a reunion. At the reunion, she renewed acquaintances with an old classmate who was a widower. They fell in love and she was on her way to get married.

Sometimes God (Yes, I believe in God) gives you signs, not unlike pennies from heaven. I was single, but this woman let me know that as long as you’re alive there are endless possibilities. “Quartet” is a 2012 British rom-com that combines a second-chance love story with the old must-raise-money to save some worthy institution. “Quartet” is currently playing at the Pasadena Playhouse 7.

The 75-year-old Dustin Hoffman makes his directorial debut and you might wonder what took him so long. But it also took a long time for this play, written by Ronald Harwood, to become a movie. The play of the same name ran on London’s West End in 1999 to 2000. According to Wikipedia, the Finnish adaptation has been wildly popular in Helsinki. Well, why not? It’s an opportunity to assemble four great stars of a certain age–two women and two men and allow their lifetime of experience and chemistry to create pure gold.

For the movie, Hoffman has brought together Maggie Smith (recently Professor Minerva McGonagall but in 1969 the titular character in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”), Pauline Collins (Sarah from the TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs”), musical comedy actor Bill Connolly (voiced King Fergus in Pixar’s 2012 “Brave”) and Tom Courtenay (who was in the 1965 “Dr. Zhivago” as Pasha and more recently appeared in “The Golden Compass”). Together, they make the perfect ensemble and the acting is subtle with even the minor characters fully nuanced.

The movie, filmed entirely at Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire, is about a retirement home for gifted musicians, Beecham House. Former opera stars Reg (Courtenay), Wilf (Connolly) and Cissy (Collins) have been living there for several years. They had once formed a famous quartet for Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 opera “Rigoletto.”

“Rigoletto” is about a curse (the opera’s original title was “The Curse” or “La Maledizione”) placed upon a Duke and his hunch-backed jester Rigoletto by another courtier, Count Monterone, whose daughter was seduced by the Duke with Rigoletto’s encouragement. The Duke at Rigoletto’s suggestion has the Count arrested and this is when the Duke gives a father’s curse on the Duke and Rigoletto.

In the second act, the Duke seduces Rigoletto’s daughter. Rigoletto now understands Count Monterone’s anger and swears that they both will have revenge.

The quartet is from the third act, “Bella figlia dell’amore” during a scene where Gilda and Rigoletto are outside and watching the Duke seduce Maddalena, the sister of the assassin Sparafucile. Rigoletto hires Sparafucile to kills the Duke, but Maddalena begs her brother to spare the Duke and Sparafucile agrees to kill the next stranger who comes to the inn to that he will have a body to give Rigoletto. Gilda overhears the two talking and sacrifices herself for her love, the Duke. With her death, Rigoletto feels Monterone’s curse has been fulfilled.

The quartet threesome is completed with the arrival of Jean Horton (Smith), but Jean was once briefly married to Reg and her presence disturbs him, but excites the Cedric (Michael Gambon), the flamboyant director of the retirement home’s annual fundraiser, a tribute to Verdi. The four are forced to perform together, for the good of the retirement home, and Jean and Reg must confront the issues that led to the break up of their marriage. You’ll see how the opera “Rigoletto” relates to the plot in the end, but I don’t want to spoil your surprise or pleasure.

Smith makes this Jean resistant to the loss of independence and still clinging to the memory of her voice at its prime. Courtenay’s Reg is a man who is more accepting of his aging, but his rigidity in personal matters still confines him. Connolly’s Wilf is a charming rake, mostly because he is, unlike Rigoletto’s Duke, harmless because no one takes his attempts at seduction seriously. Collins’ Cissy is an old dear–she’s that lovable ditzy elder aunt that everyone loves because she shines with goodwill and good intentions.

Unlike the Austrian “Amour,” this movie doesn’t look at the hard truths of growing old. There are the usual signs of aging–the randy old man who has lost some of his behavior controls due to dementia, but his sexual suggestiveness never trespasses into the excessively crude language or aggressive groping that would make him repellant. There are plenty of senior moments of forgetfulness and some of these are helpful to the  furthering of the plot.  This is a gentle, geriatric comedy and Hoffman wisely never shows us the quartet singing so the illusion of these actors as opera stars isn’t shattered by lip synching. This isn’t about the music although the movie is filled with it. The movie is an adult fairy tale about second chances, something one rarely gets, and the possibility of love in one’s twilight years, after the ambition of youth and the conflict of career paths have been extinguished and one is left to consider one’s emotional path before one’s journey ends.

“Quartet” won the Audience Choice Award for Best Narrative Feature (Dustin Hoffman) at the 2012 Chicago International Film Festival. Hoffman also won a Breakthrough award for directing at the 2012 Hollywood Film Festival. Smith was nominated for a Golden Globe.

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