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Quartet (2013)

CRUMBLIES…4 crumblies

Okay, this one’s a bit close to home. And, if I’m honest, pissed me off. Not for its qualities, more for what it showed ours not to be. Cos this isn’t a care home in a mansion. It doesn’t have a theme, like decrepit performers with a leaning towards opera. And it certainly doesn’t have regular galas that pull on the talents of those present to, I don’t know, fund a major improvement in the plumbing or something. No, we are an ugly square dump behind a supermarket, with a mix of thick-as-towels, end-of-hope locals and those with a broader perspective on the world. And an education. I mean me.

We are not Quartet.

Which – incidentally – also seems to have its own weather system. There is brightness,, bucolic glory and a kind of colour-enhancing light that makes the ancient inhabitants of their care mansion look vibrant and worth it. They have silk robes, magnificent hair and acoustics to bring their constant singing to life. For they are artistes en repose, not abandoned oldsters in God’s waiting dump.

Oh, for an atmosphere like Quartet. Constant music, rehearsals keeping talent sharp and loud before the final gargles kick in. And a purpose! Those galas give this film an easy structure, like a quality frame for the starry cast within.

Dustin Hoffman, the director showing what a septagenarian can do for the first time, makes a sweetly lyrical film using proficient, top quality tools. Sheridan Smith as Doctor Lucy Cogan runs the facility and fends off the flirting old men, particularly Billy Connolly. He is Wilf, a comedy soul fending off his own incontinence with charm and an air of improv. I enjoyed this sparring on first viewing, both performers do warm, knowing jobs, but it was a more challenging repeat experience given the sexual behaviour issues Hoffman has made a poor job of addressing this last year.

Connolly stands alongside three other classy performers. Tom Courtenay is Reggie Paget, all regret and long looks, but a man prepared to teach the young. He leads a lovely scene interacting with a group of teens: opera meets rap and both get respect. Alongside Courtenay from the start is Pauline Collins as Cissy Robson. She is beautiful and innocent when walking the path from dottiness to dementia. There is nothing mawkish in her portrayal of that journey, just an ingenue betrayed by age and platelets. Old Jack sees it everyday in here, but without the love and support on show from this crowd of opera luvvies. I see it alone in ill-lit corridors; hidden from family; efficiently nursed. Ghastly.

The last to arrive and disturb the pot is Maggie Smith as Jean Horton, who abandoned Reggie and many others to earn the big house she has had to sell and the memories she alone enjoys. She arrives with her nose in the air and rage a-bubbling. There are snotty putdowns and disdain, but the inmates congregate as she enters and give her applause you know has not been enjoyed in a long time. She has a flush of pride and the potential to fit in. Dame Maggie is as fantastic in this moment as the film is funny throughout. Michael Gambon as Cedric (Ceeeedric), Andrew Sachs and Trevor Peacock et al bolster the noise and the joyous atmosphere she joins. She is home.

It’s an odd thing to see people politics from a care home reflected in a film. We remain as catty, competitive and resentful of personality conflicts as at any point in life. People row; people don’t talk (the Cranky Clive and Terminal Terry stand-off lasted until they were both in urns). Our guests forget that.

So it’s cathartic to see the second half of Quartet bring a fresh tension as characters bellow at each other for poor decisions, or Dame Maggie and Courtenay pad their way to a rapprochement. Pauline Collins’ character acts as a kind of stopwatch on all this: will they all be ready for the gala, with Jean sing, will Cissy’s mind keep her in the room long enough to get through it all? And under all this:  will they all perform as well as they did this one last time..?

As I said, in this home we just don’t care. We’re individuals locked away in our own worlds. Film Night breaks the barriers a little, as does breakfast on Fuck It, Have a Fry Up Friday. We are unconnected and unsuccessful, which the film rather rammed home.

The gala proceeds. You can feel the relief and success as the credits roll. Where I was, sat beside Maud in the TV room, we were quiet.

“Shall we start a choir?” she said.

If you’re not totally pissed at Hoffman, enjoy his team’s work on Netflix and iTunes. Or come along to our choir’s carol concert next Christmas.

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