Cissy (Pauline Collins), Reggie (Tom Courtenay) and Wilfred (Billy Connolly) are retired opera singers, living - along with others - at Beecham House, a home for retired musicians. Every year, on October 10, the residents organise a fund raising concert for the home and to celebrate Verdi's birthday. The once celebrated Jean (Maggie Smith), who was briefly married to Reggie years ago, arrives unexpectedly at the home and disrupts their equilibrium. She still acts like a diva, but she refuses to sing in the gala. Still, the show must go on... and it does.
Review by Louise Keller:
I smiled throughout this funny, stirring and uplifting film in which talents, egos and temperaments dance in time with the music. Adapted from a stage play and stylishly directed with consummate ease by Dustin Hoffman, there's a sense of playfulness and fun about the film as it floats delicately above its backdrop of an elegant home for retired musicians. As the song says - What good is what you've got, if you're not havin' any fun? Jokes about the pitfalls of ageing are handled with respect and affection; as a result, we warmly embrace the characters and genuinely care for their plight. Bursting with heart and an infectious zest for life, the film rejoices in things to which we can all aspire: fun, respect, relationships - and yes, even getting older, or at least one's attitude to the inevitability of it all.
The film begins to the lyrical toe-tapping strains of the Brindisi from Verdi's La Traviata and we get a sense of what life is like at graceful Beecham House, surrounded by beautiful gardens and inhabited by a lively bunch of retired singers and musicians. Music is part of their diets - everyone is humming, whistling, dancing, singing and playing instruments as they go about their daily routine. There is a vivacious ambience, not only between the residents but also with the amiable staff. The upcoming annual gala concert in honour of Verdi's birthday holds special significance this year with Beecham House under threat of closure - unless enough money is raised through the promise of a special performance of Quartet by its original stars, now in residence - scratchy top notes withstanding.
Four characters provide the pivot for the main action which begins with the arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith in fine form), a celebrated soprano with a reputation for being difficult, much to the chagrin of her former husband Reginald (Tom Courtenay), who mournfully declares he had wanted a dignified senility. For comic relief, you can't go beyond Billy Connolly as the sex-obsessed Wilf, whose naughty boy inability to censor himself is put down to his recent mild stroke. After all, he insists every man thinks of sex every 7 seconds. And there is the irrepressible Pauline Collins as the eager-to-please Cissy ('ageing is not for sissies') who shows she has lost none of her charm since Shirley Valentine. Watch out also for Michael Gambon's larger than life, amusingly immodest director Cedric with the flamboyant wardrobe.
There are many highlights, including the scene when Reginald is giving a talk to a group of young music lovers and engages in a revealing discourse about the difference between opera and rap music with a young rapper. The rebuilding of the relationship between Reginald and Jean cocoons the heart of the film and exchanges like 'Why do we have to die? That's what people do,' offers inevitability to the fate that waits for us all. Laughter is plentiful, playing out like a musical instrument whose note lingers. There are also moments that play out like gems and form the film's delicious surprises. And of course, there is the glorious music from Bach, Verdi, Puccini, Haydn and Schubert as texture.
This is a gorgeous film, beautifully judged and performed. I laughed and I cried. Don't rush away during the closing credits - the emotional impact of the acknowledgment of many members of the cast, who each has auspicious musical careers of their own - is indescribable.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Old age is not for sissies, Cissy (Pauline Collins) likes to repeat, not even in the comfort of a stylish retirement mansion with its own grand piano, grounds and groundsman. But the aches and pains and failing memories are nothing compared to the barbs of the competing talents, because ego is a performer's most sensitive part. Riffing on these themes, Ronald Harwood's sometimes acidic but generally charming screenplay brings out the director in Dustin Hoffman, who seems to relish his debut amongst some of Britain's acting royalty.
The advantage of having such a cast is that he has no risks when it comes to performances; all he has to concentrate on is clarity of story telling and what point of view for the camera to take. (OK, I'm minimising, there are still a thousand decision every day ...) John de Borman's cinematography makes it all look glorious, inside and out, even the sick bay. It's part of a romanticised view of ageing, perhaps, but it doesn't set out to be a depressing confirmation of its worst aspects. Glimpses of it are sufficient .. because at its heart it's the proven formula of putting on a show to save something worth saving.
Maggie Smith plays Jean, the veteran diva who has long stopped singing (but not being a diva) and whose past marriage to Reggie (Tom Courtenay) is the emotional trip wire for the drama within the comedy. This kernel grows larger as the film progresses, and is well embellished by the mischievous Wilf (Billy Connolly) who flirts with every female on the staff, and Cissy, whose daffiness is both entertaining and sad. But neither Harwood's screenplay nor Hoffman's direction allow this to become maudlin, a danger whenever a story is set in a retirement home, after all.
The humour is wry, the drama is intimate and the rhythm of the editing carries us through to a satisfying ending.
One of the incidental pleasures of the story is the amount of music that is played by the residents, either in rehearsal or just practicing. Stay for the end credits to see what a talented lot they are, drawn from real life careers in music and theatre.
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PAULINE COLLINS INTERVIEW
Andrew L. Urban and Pauline Collins
CAST: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall, Luke Newberry, Eline Powell
PRODUCER: Finola Dwyer, Stewart Mackinnon
DIRECTOR: Dustin Hoffman
SCRIPT: Ronald Harwood
CINEMATOGRAPHER: John de Borman
EDITOR: Barney Pilling
MUSIC: Dario Marianelli
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Andrew McAlpine
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2012