Thursday, January 31, 2013


                 Down the Road from Downton Abbey
                                             Review by Ken Burke                 

A “let’s put on a show to save …” plot featuring retired opera stars healing old wounds and preparing for a final curtain call; charming in a typically-charming BBC manner.

  This has been another one of my incomprehensible weeks where those annoying people at Mills College insist that I give them a good deal of my time in return for that money they so casually offer me (Just kidding; come on, put the paycheck in the envelope and mail it to me … please?), along with my theatre-happy wife Nina hauling me off to see a play from the lofty regions of the San Francisco Geary Theatre’s upper balcony (Just kidding with you as well; and you know what I want you to put where but let’s not get into that [so to speak] right now … but hopefully later … hmm, more good incentive to write short and fast this week [Nina, that's not what I'm referring to; for the rest of you, I'm channeling Billy Connolly's Quartet character (second from right in the photo above; more on him below)], but if you’re interested the play in question is Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, an interesting quasi-autobiographical inter-generational family drama which you can get a lot more info about—including upcoming performance opportunities—at, so that, honestly I’ve only seen one film since I posted my last review (except for a DVD encore of Reds, which has nothing to do with Quartet except for featuring a lot of older well-known [in some circles at least] actors and commentators on screen [however, by providing 1981’s Best Director Oscar for Warren Beatty Reds may presage another actor’s vehicle getting Academy recognition with 2012’s Argo, directed by Ben Affleck who isn’t nominated for his directing but is building up steam for Best Picture (review of Argo in this blog’s Oct. 19, 2012 posting]), which is Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut, Quartet.  Unlike the fiercely emotional Amour (Michael Haneke; reviewed in this blog in the Jan. 24, 2013 posting), Quartet presents a much more uplifting, genteel version of the realities of aging, where there are some serious difficulties (one major character, Cissy Robson [Pauline Collins, far left in the photo above], is troubled by early-stage dementia; a minor character dies as Quartet approaches its finale—although this sad interruption of the day’s activities is accepted by the residents of the Beecham House for Retired Musicians as an inevitable event which is somberly acknowledged but not allowed to ruin the task at hand), yet mostly there is optimism that life hasn’t ended (so far), new accomplishments are still possible, and especially for Wilf(red) Bond (Billy Connolly) at least the desire of sexual fulfillment still springs eternal (so [he hopes] to speak), even if just in playful exchanges with the home’s director, young and attractive Dr. Lucy Cogan (Sheridan Smith), who scolds him even as she lightly responds.

  Of course, of the notable Smiths in the cast it’s Maggie, as retired diva Jean Horton, who likely will get the most attention from those of us not so familiar with opera, classical music, and British actors, given her frequent appearances in well-known films (everything since The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [Ronald Neame, 1969] to the Harry Potter series [various directors, 2001-2011]) and her current Golden Globe-winning presence as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham in PBS’ Downton Abbey mini-series.  In Quartet she seems right at home in the role of yet another haughty aristocratic old dame (although the real Dame in this film, relative to royal titles at least, is Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who as another pompous retired diva, Anne Langley, belts out a number at the film’s finale that gives seemingly-more-famous-but-long-time-rival diva Horton a final pause before the closing performance, a challenge to live up to in the famous quartet number which gives the film its name; to Hoffman’s credit, Jones is only 1 of many in the supporting cast who are actual celebrated British singers, musicians, and stage actors populating this acoustically-blessed retirement manor—more of a stately countryside estate than anything I ever saw with my now-deceased parents in their various retirement quarters, this place [the actual Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire] is every bit as elegant and tasteful as its residents—although Wilf constantly brings things down to Earth in his jovial, unassuming manner).  Former luminary Horton refuses to sing any longer (although she certainly enjoys listening to her old recordings), possibly because her throat is full from the crow she has to eat based on her various indignities:  having to give up her stately independence to move in with a bunch of ancients like herself, feeling a lack of confidence that her voice is not as powerful as it once was so that rather than face the humiliation of no longer being queen of the mountain she just sulks in her private cave, and, most important for the plot, being surprised to find that former professional colleague and ex-husband Reg(inald) Paget (Tom Courtenay) is also in residence at Beecham House, a shock for both of them but more for her as his presence quickly shakes Jean from her lofty perch, putting her in the role of trying to placate the anger that been brooding in Reg for decades.  Their slowly-eroding tensions (mostly generated by Reg, as Jean seems oddly willing to quickly lighten up and let bygones be bygones) and the need to resurrect the ancient Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney MGM trope of “putting on a show" to save something (beginning with Busby Berkeley’s 1939 Babes in Arms, with a ton of background information if you'd like to read extensively further about this movie at, in this case Beecham House in dire financial woes, leads to the reuniting of some of Britain’s great opera collaborators in a revival of their famous rendition of the Quartet from Giuseppe Verdi’s 1851 opera Rigoletto.

            This is a film more to watch for the quality of the ongoing musical snippets than for its pleasant-but-predictable plot (as I quickly found out when a serious-looking man seemingly even older than I am shushed me for chatting a bit with Nina as he was engrossed in the commercials that ran before the opening previews; now there’s a film patron [or patrón, as the Spanish speakers would say, with a more negative implication] who takes every sound emanating from the screen in a very precious manner, although I didn’t feel so jovial about it at the time because this is the kind of guy who gives us old farts a bad name).  Once we’ve gotten used to Jean’s arrogance (which does soften considerably as the narrative moves along, thereby cancelling out much of the pleasure that some expectant viewers might find in relishing the usual Maggie Smith acid-tongue remarks), Wilf’s rakish shenanigans (about which he has no illusions of actual intercourse nor shame in attending to life’s obligations, such as peeing in the bushes rather than walking all the way back to the manor), Cissy’s journeys in and out of present-day consciousness (which are amusing at times but almost ruin the long-awaited reunion performance), and Reg’s serious tone about nearly everything (including his ultimately-successful attempts to bridge a generation gap with some local teenagers in a discussion about the relative merits and comparisons of opera and rap), we know what we’re in for as the plot walks easily toward closure, so I doubt that I’d spoil anything for you by revealing that all is forgiven between former lovers Jean and Reg (they even agree to marry again, just before their triumphant return to the stage), allowing Jean to finally agree to “get the band back together” for the financially-triumphant concert to save Beecham House, which also ends, we are led to believe, in a successful return to triumph for the quartet, even though all we get of that is an aural sing-over as the camera soars majestically into the sky above the home not forcing us to hear actors attempt a tonal challenge beyond their thespian skills nor see them reduced to Beyoncé-Inauguration-Day level with lip-syncing, so as to not have to compare them to the clearly-superior singing talents of those around them in Beecham House, especially Dame Jones.  There’s nothing here that will take you beyond a good number of previous Masterpiece Theatre-type situations—and may tread a bit too much on Maggie Smith’s very familiar grouchy-old-lady persona—but the performances, acting and musical, are superb, the talent is comforting to see on screen still in such fine form (including Michael Gambon [himself well-known from a wide range of previous cinematic roles but most especially as Professor Albus Dumbledore in 6 of the 8 Harry Potter movies, after the untimely 2002 death of Richard Harris who was in the master wizard role for the first 2 Potters] as Cedric Livingston, the humorous singularly-focused-but-consistently-absent-minded director of the benefit concert), verifying screenwriter Ronald Harwood’s (script based on his earlier play of the same name) goal of showing “the triumph of old age.”

            Admittedly, the principals in this drama aren’t as old as was Anne (the resplendent, Oscar-worthy Emmanuelle Riva) in Amour, just as they’re not yet as physically/mentally challenged as she was (although we can only hope that Cissy can keep her wits about her a bit longer) but their circumstances do allow them to give those of us who are no longer interesting to Nielsen-ratings demographics-compilers some hope that our final act doesn’t have to be played out in the wings when the stage is still open for some further performances before our show has run its inevitable course and our next venue is in Hamlet's "undiscovered country" of the next dimension.

            As a first-time director at age 75 Dustin Hoffman won’t make anyone forget him as an actor—and he certainly won’t be joining the likes of Beatty, Robert Redford (Ordinary People, 1980), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves, 1990), Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, 1992, and Million Dollar Baby, 2004), Mel Gibson (Braveheart, 1995), and Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, 2001) in winning a Directing Oscar in his maiden voyage behind the camera (of course Ben Affleck won’t be making this trip to the podium either, joining Kathryn Bigelow in the “I wuz robbed!” category for 2012, although Affleck just may have a shot at the last laugh when Best Picture is announced)—but Quartet is a pleasant, competent debut that just adds further shine to an already stellar career in front of the camera.  You have to be in the mood (and maybe in the proper age bracket) for this one, but if so you’ll likely have an enjoyable night (or afternoon matinee, depending on how far into that age bracket you are) at the theatre.  If you don’t care to even go out in public for the best aspects of this film, especially knowing that you’ll not get the full rendition of the Rigoletto quartet number, you might prefer to just listen to it here at (by chance, a fellow BlogSpot site; I wonder what kind of madness this Google blogger endures).  Of course, if you don’t have interest in any of this highbrow, low-action drama but still want a musical attitude appropriate to the moral of this film you might be satisfied with a 1975 version of Mick Jagger’s metaphorical advice to Jean Horton regarding wanting vs. needing at (although if you don’t have 15 min. for this live version here’s a mere 5-min. offering from about the time of the song’s composition in 1969 at Happy listening until next week.

            If you’d like to explore Quartet in more detail here are some suggested links: (a cluster of 13 short interviews with director Hoffman; two of the main actors, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins; writer Ronald Harwood; and producer Finola Dwyer)

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