Saturday, January 26, 2013

Review: "Quartet"

A few times a year I get very envious when I read bloggers who have screened certain films at film festivals. I get antsy on Saturday if I have not seen a film that opened the previous day. Cannes is the crème de la crème of festivals, but right now in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival (which has gained more attention since Little Miss Sunshine and Precious scored huge victories there) screened Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's third film in the on-going relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). What does this have to do with Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet? It was at TIFF in September when I heard so many positive comments about the film while standing in line for various other screenings. Unfortunately, Quartet is far too sugar-coated and ridiculous to be taken seriously. Maggie Smith comes close to being a duplicate of her award-winning role of the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey. I am shocked that she was nominated for a Golden Globe! But then again, so was Meryl Streep (don't tell Lindsay Lohan I said that!). Roger Ebert gave the film two and a half stars, but his review has a much more scathing tone. Ebert insinuates that the film, based on Ronald Harwood's 1999 play, is too impractical and inconsistent. There are a lot of chronological inconsistencies in the film and it gets tiring having to put up with some much movie magic. I was fond of Maggie Smith's performance, and she was well matched with Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly, but Michael Gambon's over-the-top acting became exhausting. There is such little evidence of direction that the only reason such a sloppy film could be released was because of Dustin Hoffman's name. Admittedly, I am not the target audience for the film - I am at least thirty years too young. Perhaps the women who flocked to see The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel (which also stars Maggie Smith) are more adept at putting up with this cavity-causing story. Quartet is a clumsily-directed film about retired musicians that travels through its plot without any respect for the intelligence of its audience. Scarcely more than ninety minutes, there were more than a handful of movie-goers in the audience with me who had to leave early!

Cissy (Collins), Wilf (Connolly) and Reg (Courtenay) are former musicians living at Beecham House, a retirement home for wealthy musicians. The residents are busy preparing for a gala concert to celebrate Guiseppe Verdi's birthday. Cedric (Gambom), the overbearing man in charge of the gala, believes that Cissy, Wilf and Reg should reunite in a performance of Rigoletto (Verdi's 1851 opera). The whole estate is turned on its head when Jean Horton (Smith) arrives. Jean was the diva at the centre of the quartet, which also included Cissy, Wilf and Reg. Not only that, she was also briefly married to Reg, who has little interest in seeing or speaking to her. Beecham House's only doctor, Dr. Cogan (Sheridan Smith), is under stress because the profits from the gala are the only way the retirement home can stay afloat. In order for the gala to succeed, the quartet must be able to put aside their differences and reunite.

Quartet and A Late Quartet both premiered at TIFF in September. Both films suffer because too little importance is placed on their central theme, music. Quartet exists in a world without time. It is a troubling fact because we are never quite sure when the gala is scheduled and how much time exists between Jean's arrival and the concert. Both films also treat their characters as if they are living in a soap opera. The relationship woes are terribly trite. Quartet wants to be a charming little story about octogenarians who come together to make music. Yet, as a director Dustin Hoffman (and Ronald Harwood, who adapted his own stage play) forget to tie up loose ends. How could a huge estate be saved by a very small concert performed by retired musicians? How can Beecham House only staff one doctor? There is far too little exposition in the story and it becomes a chore to watch the film. Maggie Smith, who is deliciously sharp-tongued on Downton Abbey, comes across as a smarmy bitch - which definitely detracts from the film's all too obvious and poorly executed climax. Perhaps Dustin Hoffman will learn from his mistakes if he ever directs another film. Quartet was a bore to watch.

My rating: 1 star out of 4.

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