2012 was a busy year for Maggie Smith. In addition to her role in season 3 of “Downton Abbey,” she was featured in two, very similar films: Quartet and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The two movies are so similar that it’s almost impossible to review one without comparing it to the other. Both films feature aging retirees, adjusting to both a new phase in their lives and to new environments. However, while The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was energetic, and uplifting, Quartet is more subtle, quiet and slightly more serious.
Quartet gets its title from the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. You see, Beecham House is a home for retired musicians. In Beecham, at any moment, you might stumble across a choir rehearsing an opera in one room while a disgruntled director (Michael Gambon) criticizes, a jazz number being performed in a different room, a lone clarinetist out under a gazebo, or just a former singer listening to her old recordings. Quartet paints a charming picture of artists who remain devoted to their craft, no matter their age. The film opens as Beecham House is preparing its annual gala in celebration of Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday, hoping to raise enough money to keep the retirement home open for another year.
Into this environment enters Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a retired opera singer, whose life becomes more complex when she realizes that Beecham houses both her ex-husband and her old singing partners, whose performance of the quartet in their heyday is now legend. The plot of Quartet moves quietly along as the singers deal with the upcoming performance and their relationships, but the plot generally takes a backseat to the themes of the film. Much like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet is about how we deal with aging in today’s world.
The divas of Beecham house all feel as if their best days are behind them. The clarinetist can’t make it through an entire piece without medication, the singers’ high notes crack, and it’s harder to remember their parts. Many of them feel as if they’re living in the shadows of their former selves, made especially difficult when their earlier recordings are so easily available. In their eyes you can see each of them asking, “What do I have left to offer, when all my best days are behind me?” It’s a slightly different take on things from Marigold, which also focused on how to find purpose and meaning in a world that seems to have left you behind, but which tackled the issue in a different way. Marigold was all about finding ways to contribute and things to live for, where Quartet is more about how to face down the reality of age.
No one is able to measure up to the abilities of their youth, nor to stop the march of time. What sets Quartet apart from Marigold is its realism. While Marigold dealt with death on one level, it left out much of the consequences of aging. In Quartet, we’re confronted (though never overwhelmed) with the realities of aging, particularly those affecting the mind. One member of the quartet is right at the cusp of Alzheimer’s, her slight absentmindedness betraying the greater failings that lie just around the corner, waiting to be set off by the smallest of things. Where Marigold dealt with feeling lost in an ever changing world, Quartet doesn’t show us how the characters are lost, but what they’ve lost.
I don’t mean to make Quartet sound like Amour, because it’s not even close; it’s very much a comedy-drama. Maggie Smith gives Jean a feisty edge, and is always captivating. Much of the film’s humor comes from Billy Connolly, playing the sort of “horny old man unable to censor himself” character that’s common in these sorts of films. It’s the sort of part we’ve seen before, but Connolly plays it with heart and feeling in addition to wicked humor and makes it feel fresh. Most of the supporting cast is filled with actual older musicians, which gives the film a sense of veracity that would have otherwise been missing.
Dustin Hoffman chose a quiet, simple film for his directorial debut, and his talent shines the most through the performances he’s directing. It’s clear that he’s an “actor’s director,” allowing the cast to do their thing with a minimum of interference. It all makes Quartet feel very natural, almost as though it were being performed on stage. The words I keep coming back to are “quiet” and “simple”. There are no wacky hijinks, no larger-than-life characters, just people and situations that feel real.
In the end, which of the two similar films you prefer will depend much on personal taste. They both have similar scores on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. And while I’m normally one to prefer a quieter movie, in this case I found Quartet wasn’t as much my cup of tea as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. They’re both great movies, facing old age with a sense of humor and with strength, and of course both star the magnificent Maggie Smith. If you have the opportunity, see both, because they each have unique perspectives to offer.