Some friends came to visit this past weekend, and we had planned to see Gangster Squad (for Ryan, obviously) at the cinema on Saturday night. However, in sub zero temperatures, a trek to the nearest multiplex didn’t appeal, so we settled for my local dinky two screen cinema. They were only showing Les Miserables or Quartet, and as we were in the mood for something uplifting, the choice was made for us. I am of the mindset that anything with Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon in it can’t possibly be bad, so we went into the cinema with high expectations for a lovely viewing experience. When we realised that we were easily the youngest people in the cinema by a good forty years, we knew we’d made the right decision. As my old flatmate always used to say about restaurants in New York, if old people are in there, it’s got to be good.
Beecham House is an idyllic retirement home for former musicians; filled with a range of talents, from pianists to opera singers, the tranquil grounds of the beautiful stately home are positively vibrating with the sound of music. As the film opens, the House is a hive of activity. The residents are preparing for the annual Verdi birthday gala, which this year is even more vital than usual, because if they don’t raise enough funds through ticket sales, Beecham House will have to close. Everyone has to perform, and intensive rehearsals are presided over by the eccentric, dictatorial former Opera Director Cedric, played perfectly by Michael Gambon. A group of three friends; Wilf, Reggie and Cissy, all former opera singers, are enjoying the preparations until a shock new arrival throws everything into disarray.
Jean Horton, magnificently played by Maggie Smith, was one of the greatest opera singers of her day. However, in recent years she has seen her fortunes fade, and she has reluctantly arranged to sell up and move into Beecham House. She is met with much excitement by all of the residents except one; Reggie. He and Jean were once married, and he has never forgiven her betrayal of him. Jean is anxious to heal the rift, but Reggie can’t even bear to be in the same room as her. Eager to help, Cissy hits on a cunning plan. With the success of the Gala having such importance this year, Jean would be a huge draw. For reasons of her own, she refuses to perform. But what if Reggie can convince her to sing the legendary quartet from Rigoletti she, Reggie, Cissy and Wilf once performed to such acclaim? Could they save Beecham House, and reunite the quartet of once fast friends?
Quartet is wonderfully entertaining, with excellent performances throughout, but it is also a profoundly moving tale of the struggles of growing older and facing your own mortality. Wilf and Reggie are watching Cissy slowly slide into the clutches of dementia, and Jean listens to her old records in her room, bewildered at how quickly she has gone from one of the most famous divas of the operatic world to a forgotten old woman. Once the residents played to crowds of thousands and grand accolades; now they are reduced to putting on a show in a retirement home dining hall in order to keep a roof over their heads.
This could be profoundly depressing, but somehow, it isn’t. As the final scenes play out, the characters demonstrate that there is always hope, always beauty, always laughter, right up until the very end. We might change, and we might become unable to do the things we have done in the past, but old age presents new opportunities and challenges that allow us to continue to develop and grow as people, and find happiness in new and different ways. I loved the end credits, where it showed old photographs of all the extras in the film, who were once professional musicians. It really touched me to think of the wonderful lives they have lead, and how easy it is to dismiss elderly people without even stopping to think of how much they have seen and done and overcome throughout their lifetimes. I left the cinema feeling humbled, moved and uplifted. Oh, and with a new appreciation for Opera; the soundtrack is sublime. You must see it!
p.s. watching this also made me think about starting up my own retirement home in a similarly idyllic location when the time comes for me to put my feet up. It would be for likeminded literary types, of course, and have an amazing library with a fire and tea on tap and all the books I love. To get a room in my luxurious residence, you’d have to answer a questionnaire about your literary tastes to ensure compatibility. If you’d never heard of Dorothy Whipple, your application would have to go straight in the bin!