Douglas has been a professional food writer since 1986. He is also an award-winning actor and director in Community Theatre and has been for many years. His blog may be found at: www.urbaneguerilla.wordpress.com
Published December 27th 2012
Old age ain't for sissies
Dustin Hoffman, a wonderful, if difficult, actor, makes his second stab at directing in thirty-five years with The Quartet.
For me, the overwhelming theme of The Quartet is waste - the waste by society of talent of people gifted and professional, but aged and the more serious waste of hugely talented actors by the director.
Acting greats - Dame Maggie Smith and Sir Tom Courtney
It is, after all, a dream cast - Sir Michael Gambon (72), Sir Tom Courtney (75), Dame Maggie Smith (78), Pauline Collins (72), Andrew Sachs (82), Trevor Peacock (81), David Ryall (77) and the baby of the group at 70, Billy Connelly.
With this collection of acting talents, to say nothing of the musical talents of the genuine retired musicians who make up the cast of 'extras', including Dame Gwyneth Jones, the noted and not really retired Wagnerian soprano.
Sir Michael Gambon as Cedric the director
The Quartet of the title is both an operatic aria and four people. Musically it's the quartet aria from Verdi's Rigoletto and artistically it's four aging singers who find themselves at Beecham House an upper-class home for wealthy retired musicians, two of whom were (very) briefly married to each other.
The story-line is that the four quartet singers (Courtney, Connelly, Smith and Collins) are all residents of the home (named for Sir Thomas Beecham) which is in danger of having to close down and whose fortunes may be saved by the ticket sales of the annual Verdi Birthday Concert.
The plot is simple, very simple, and largely without point or purpose. The depiction of the realities of old age is entirely ignored in this mythical home of great wealth where the residents are cosseted to a degree unknown in National Health Britain of 2012.
The risk of closure and poverty is depicted by the fact that the medical registrar has to help the nursing staff arrange flowers. And having made that telling point, the plot wanders off into the sunset, ignored and alone, being briefly resurrected by the Registrar, a wonderfully understated performance by Sheridan Smith at the concert, which with an audience of perhaps fifty has raised enough to keep the palatial retirement home running for a further year - one boggles at what the tickets must have cost.
Plays and films about the elderly are big business at the moment. One thinks of The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel (For the Elderly and Beautiful) and others.
The waste in this film with its extremely shaky premise is that it could have been so much better than it is. Better writing, more thought on the plot, less reverential direction and a far, far better use of the prodigious talents available - Andrew Sachs is given almost no lines - would have made a more realistic and far more enjoyable film.
This is not to say I didn't enjoy it - how could one not enjoy watching Tom Cortney and Billy Connolly, or marvel at the depth of emotion that Pauline Collins can evoke with a single eyebrow quirk. Maggie Smith frankly walked her part.
The best part of the film was watching the actors and listening to the truly glorious music and singing.
Dame Gwyneth Jones at 76 has an unbelievable vocal range and control and Maggie Smith is dubbed by Dame Joan Sutherland at her height, so there's nothing to cavil at in the singing and some of the scenes are very moving but it could all have been so much better without the wanton waste of talent.