Quartet Review

poster from the BBC Films movie Quartet

The original plan for this week was to see Warm Bodies, even though I was less than thrilled to have zombies co-opted by the romance crowd. But then my friend who was keen on the movie went out of town, so I said “the hell with it.” And went to Quartet instead. I’d missed Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in theaters and I wasn’t going to miss this one.

Four opera singers who once performed together must resolve their differences in order to re-enact their performance for their retirement home’s fundraising gala.

If the American baby boomer actor anti-obsolescence plan is to simply implant them into regular scripts and then shoehorn in a few jokes about getting old, the British plan seems to be to embrace retirement as a new source of jokes and funny situations. What surprised me about Quartet wasn’t that it was funny, but that it was so relatable, even to people 40+ years away from the nursing home.

We begin the story by diving into the world of Beecham House, a nursing home for retired musicians (I guess that’s one way to keep them from annoying other residents with their clarinet playing). Wilf (Billy Connolly), Cissy (Pauline Collins), and Reggie (Tom Courtenay) are three friends who know each other from their opera days. They get along well enough on their own. Wilf is the funny one. He hits on anything that moves.

Billy Connolly from the BBC Films movie Quartet

“Things get better with age you know… fine wine…. seasoned wood…”

Cissy is the sweet one. She has the memory of Dorey the fish from Finding Nemo and the awareness level of Babs the hen from Chicken Run.

Maggie Smith and Pauline Collins from the BBC Films movie Quartet

“I don’t want to be a pie! … I don’t like gravy.”

And then there’s Reggie. All Reggie wants is a “dignified senility” but it’s kind of hard to get one when your body is shutting down and your friends keep forgetting who they are. Reggie is kind of sad (but in a dignified, British way) because of some unnamed disappointment early in his life.

preparing for the gala from the BBC Films movie Quartet

Hmm, yes, I see: the script calls for me to revisit and resolve my earlier disappointment.

Beecham House is in the middle of preparing for their annual gala, which raises the funds the home needs to stay open, so there’s a slight air of “save the ________” to Quartet, though they don’t harp on it too much (hur hur, get it? Harp?) There’s also a small “these young people don’t appreciate opera” subplot going on as well, with Reggie teaching teenagers about opera and learning about rap from them, but thankfully they don’t make any of the old people rap. (You know they would have in an American film).

Billy Connolly tells a joke from the BBC Films movie Quartet

Hey you young bucks you don’t know sh**
We eat a lotta marmalade cause we likes it
We don’t like computers or follow trends
Now can somebody help me change my Depends

Wilf, Cissy, and Reggie have some standard classical pieces prepared for the gala until their old friend Jean (Maggie Smith) shows up and they realize that with the four of them back together, their gala could be legendary (they were super famous in their youth). The problem is that Jean is really upset about getting old and going to a nursing home so she’d rather beat them over the heads with flower arrangements than sing in the gala.

Maggie Smith gets cheers from the BBC Films movie Quartet

The adulation, though, that she’ll take.

So what’s the one thing that could possibly change her mind? Lurv of course! (Though it will not, as Warm Bodies supposes, make her not undead.) Jean and Reggie were once married (for about 9 hours, but that’s another story) and have been estranged for about a million years, but if there’s one thing that being retired teaches you, it’s that you’re almost dead so what the hell? (the movie’s point, not mine!)

Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith from the BBC Films movie Quartet

Excuse me, but did you just say ‘almost dead’?

I thought going in that while I would laugh at the jokes, I wouldn’t really be able to relate to the characters because they were so old, but I was surprised to find that Beecham House wasn’t all that dissimilar to a boarding school, where the doctor (Sheridan Smith) takes the place of the matron and the residents are kids who love to make fun of each other, but in a witty, intelligent way that makes them less annoying than children.

Maggie Smith and Sheridan Smith from the BBC Films movie Quartet

“This is not a retirement home. It’s a mad house.”

It’s Billy Connolly and his “seasoned wood” that get most of the laughs in Quartet but everyone has a few gems. Tom Courtenay, in particular, had me cracking up when he called after his caregiver “bitch! Skinny-assed French twot!” because she always brings him Wilf’s favorite apricot jam instead of the marmalade he likes with his toast (she couldn’t hear him).

breakfast time at Beecham House from the BBC Films movie Quartet

WILF: You’ve just got to know how to use your seasoned wood, Reggie.

So should you go see Quartet? Yes, if you like British comedy. For those of you who don’t there won’t be enough pratfalls and crude sex jokes to keep you interested. In fact, you might even say it moves a little slowly for a comedy (on account of people having to walk everywhere on canes) but I thought it was great – funny, relatable, and sweet. The only complaint I really have is that after building up to it for the whole movie, we didn’t get to see them sing the quartet.

Billy Connolly Maggie Smith Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins from the BBC Films movie Quartet

Okay, open your mouth…. annnnnd scene.

We do hear it, but we don’t see it. Probably because none of them can actually sing, so I suppose I can forgive them for that. If you do go, make sure to stick around through the credits because they put up a series of comparison shots showing the actors as young people and the secondary characters as the famous musicians they once actually were. It’s a great way to remind the audience that yes, you too will someday be almost dead!

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