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Quartet: Joyful & Witty British Comedy-Drama
Many would be surprised to learn that the man behind the lens of this joyous and incredibly charming British musical-drama – about a group of retired musicians reliving their glory days in an idyllic setting of a country-side retirement home – is in fact the one and only Mr. Dustin Hoffman.
So, does the Oscar-winning actor have what it takes as a director? Absolutely.
The story of Quartet takes place in Beecham House; an opulent retirement home for gifted musicians, who are busy getting themselves ready for a gala benefit concert which will fund their home and keep it from closing. Housing some of the most respected and celebrated violinists, pianists and opera singers in the business, the tranquil country-side setting is home to an abundance of egos and theatrics.
Amongst the retired opera-singers, there is Wilfred (Connolly); a skirt-chasing Romeo who keeps himself busy by coming on to anything that moves. The forgetful and soulful Cissy (Collins), who is experiencing the early stages of dementia and then there is Reggie (Courtenay); a stern and serious-looking vocalist who wishes for nothing more than 'dignified senility'.
Their amiable and agreeable routine is soon interrupted by the abrupt arrival of Reggie's ex-wife, Jean (Smith); a snappy and touchy diva who was once a part of who still hasn't come to terms with the reality of ageing. The once renowned soloist is finding it hard to fit in the chirpiness of her new surroundings and is still longing for the good old days.
She's soon forced out of her shell when her trio of long-lost friends suggest a reunion of their quartet to perform at the gala concert. However, the task is not so easy and with time running out, Jean's temper and clashes with Reggie threaten to derail the event.
Quartet marks the first completed directorial debut for Hoffman, who previously dabbled in some behind-the-camera work in 1978's Straight Time, before it was abandoned. At seventy-five years of age, though, Hoffman has radiantly demonstrated his directorial skills.
Written for a stage-play and later adapted to the screen by Ronald Howard, the story is pretty straightforward and never feels too boxed-in – given that most of the story plays out in the confinement of the retirement home. Quartet is easy-going, fun and extremely laid-back, managing to escape the darkness and seriousness that often accompanies the principle of sickness and aging.
Connolly is a real hoot as the randy Wilfred, providing much of the comic-relief, while Collins and Courtenay devoured their roles with cleverness and class. Gambon, who plays the controlling and eccentric conductor, is absolutely infectious and Smith, whose presence in this production provides the much-needed weightiness, stands in a class of her own.
On the whole, Quartet is polished and manages to deliver cheeky laughs with great ease. We definitely hope to see more of Hoffman who – after almost five decades in the business – finally shows that he is just as great behind the camera as he is in front of it.
They would try anything as if they had no fear of failure. They weren’t afraid of screwing up because the process and the act of creation were the important parts; if the product ended up sucking it was no big deal because they’d already be at work on the next piece. At least that’s the vibe that the documentary gives off. It also helps that the modern day, grown-up No Wavers seem every bit as cool as they did back then.
Based on writer Alan Bennett’s 1989 memoir, the ‘mostly true’ story of one Margaret Shepherd - an eccentric homeless woman who back in the mid-70’s decided to set up camp in Bennett’s North London driveway and stay there for fifteen years - is beautifully told in Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady in the Van; a humorous and touching tale of an unusual friendship brought to life by an engaging script and one deliciously weird and quirky performance by the forever-great Dame Maggie Smith.
Adapted to the screen by Bennett himself – his story was initially turned into a book back in 1989 before taking up stage in London’s West End in 1999 - The Lady in the Van begins by introducing Alan Bennett (Jennings); a witty, dry and a seemingly withdrawn playwright who has just moved in to his new home in Camden, London. Thanks to camera trickery, there are two versions of the writer to be witnessed here; one is Bennett the man – a shy and a reserved fellow who deals with the outside world – and Bennett the writer; someone who sits, writes and complains about the lack of intrigue and excitement in their somewhat boring and complicated co-existence.
Things take an interesting turn with the appearance of Miss. Shepherd (Smith); a strange, smelly and a particularly single-minded drifter who lives out of the back of a van. After not being able to park her van out on the street anymore, Miss. Shepherd – whose unconventional characteristics have already ignited an interest in the writer – turns to Bennett for help. Taking pity on the poor old lady, he soon agrees for her to temporarily use his driveway which, as it turns out, she stayed on for fifteen years.
It’s easy to recognise The Lady in the Van’s theatrical roots with the movie bearing a somewhat of an artificial and at times, a distractingly stagey feel. However, that should not pose as a problem with the magnificent Maggie Smith at play, whose performance is so engaging that it’s easy to forgive the film’s tiny drawbacks. Reprising her acclaimed stage performance, Smith is absolutely superb as the wandering oldster whose mysterious past involving a hit-and-run – something that serves as the major subplot in the story – has led her to where she is today. Her interaction with Bennett – a pleasantly reliable Jennings - is where the story’s heart lies and it’s his never-ending curiosity about his particularly strange squatter that ends up slowly unravelling the mystery behind her suffering existence.
Staying clear of unnecessary melodrama and over-sentimentalising its subject, The Lady in the Van is all about Smith’s turn and, while its peculiar set up may not appeal to everyone’s taste, it’s hard to imagine anyone not being taken in by this 80 year old actress’ immense talent and her incredible ability of commanding the screen.