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NPR Arts & Life

An Aging 'Quartet,' Still Polishing Their Legends

Even after her final curtain, a diva is always a diva — as demonstrated by the flamboyant retired soprano Jean (Maggie Smith) in <em>Quartet</em>.
Even after her final curtain, a diva is always a diva — as demonstrated by the flamboyant retired soprano Jean (Maggie Smith) in <em>Quartet</em>.

"Wrinklies," a widely accepted British term for elderly people, is by a generous margin more affectionate fun than the anodyne euphemisms we use here in the United States, where many of us fear crow's-feet almost as much as we do death. It's no accident that Americans have no equivalent term of endearment beyond the horribly neutered "senior citizen." Or that Hollywood movies mostly ignore the old — or consign them to the demeaning Siberia of crazy old coots (Jack Nicholson) or wacky broads (Jane Fonda, Betty White and so many more).

Which is not to say that the Brits are above showing their soft centers when it comes to exportable chronicles from the sunset years. They just don't beat about the bush regarding the indignities of bodily decay, and they deliver the schmaltz with a characteristically pert leavening of cheek and vaudeville raunch.

This year, two wrinkly vehicles are competing for awards attention, both sweetly sentimental and both heavily reliant on the usual crackerjack roster of thespian dames and sirs. On the heels of the successful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — in which a band of the newly retired re-up by outsourcing themselves to India — comes Quartet, a big-hearted and veddy English chamber piece, never mind that it was directed — respectfully and with love — by famous Yank Dustin Hoffman.

Adapted by Ronald Harwood from his 1999 stage play, Quartet is set in a bucolic retirement community for former opera musicians, who are readying themselves for a gala benefit to fund the renovation of their buildings. This alone implies a strategic refinement of most wrinklies' options: With its plush brocades, manicured grounds and plentiful supply of attentive round-the-clock staff, Beecham House is, to put it mildly, not the kind of retirement home that's on general offer through the National Health Service. If you have to grow old and infirm, this is the place to do it, presuming you've the bucks to pay for it.

That discrepancy, however, would take us into riskier Ken Loach or Mike Leigh territory. The mostly comfy Quartet is built around the uncontroversial observation that most of us deal with old age pretty much as we approach the rest of our lives. At its center are three old friends and partners in Verdi interpretation: Wilf (Billy Connolly), a genial old gent as randy as he is kind, who keeps himself spry by coming on to the help; buttoned-up Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who claims to want nothing more than a "dignified senility"; and Cissy (Pauline Collins), a sweet soul in the early stages of dementia.

Together the three soldier on in resigned harmony that's rudely interrupted by the arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith), a testy diva who was once the group's solo star and who, we soon learn, was briefly married to Reggie. Age cannot wither Jean's robust ego, which means she still rallies for standing ovations but otherwise spreads gloom and defeatism wherever she goes. Early hostilities with Reggie are quickly smoothed over, which means there is much worse to come, and as the concert draws near, Jean's epic temper threatens to derail the festivities, to say nothing of the group's plan to sing their famed quartet from Rigoletto.

Personally, I'd show up for Maggie Smith's top-drawer basilisk stare if she were guesting on Sesame Street.And though, through no fault of her own, the actress isn't doing much here that she didn't do as the embittered retired nanny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, she still bottles the helpless rage with which so many aging people mask the existential terror of their diminishing powers and approaching demise.

She must be tamed and bettered, of course, so that Quartet may take you sweetly more or less where you expect it to go, pausing for rueful contemplation of the inevitable along the way. It's worth taking the ride just for the movie's perfectly synchronized veteran cast. Watching this graying band of great actors — in a way, these movies are a pre-retirement home for the cream of Anglo-talent — you can treat yourself to a further nostalgic trip though the history of British arts both high and low.

Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; Tom Courtenay, the Long Distance Runnerof mid-20th-century working-class neorealist cinema classics; Pauline Collins, forever Shirley Valentine; Billy Connolly, known to American audiences as the royal equerry from Mrs. Brown, but to us wrinklies-in-waiting as the 1970s Glasgow stand-up comedian whose scabrous patter made our toes curl. And as the director of festivities, Michael Gambon, who, while making my teenage daughter squeal "Dumbledore!," to me will always be the flayed hero of that other Potter's television masterpiece, The Singing Detective.

Stay the course, and Hoffman offers a bonus treat. Discreetly tucked around this heavenly troupe is a distinguished roster of wrinklies from the real-life world of the arts, both high and low. They get their due in a lovely tribute at the end, and I'm not ashamed to say I cried on demand.

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