She’s one of those rare actors who is universally adored. Introduce me to someone who doesn’t love Maggie Smith and I’ll refuse the handshake. And administer a swift donkey kick.
Well, if you thought Downton Abbey was the ultimate gift to your Maggie Smith jones, along comes a little indie film called Quartet.
Maggie as opera diva! Too good.
“She has enormous energy and focus,” says director Dustin Hoffman of his star. “She fights to do her best work.”
Adapted from the play by Ronald Harwood, Quartet takes place in the Beecham retirement home for musicians. The film opens with the occupants rehearsing (under the direction of Michael Gambon) for the home’s annual gala.
Maggie plays Jean Horton, a retired opera superstar who walked away from the stage and never looked back.
That is until she moves in to the Beecham home and realizes that not only is she surrounded by so man peers (and competitors) from her past, but also her one true love, Reggie (Tom Courtenay).
Once she arrives – and after Reggie puts his aching heart aside – a trio of former singers conspire to enlist the diva Horton to reunite and sing the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, an effort that defined all of their careers.
Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins round out the quartet, both giving the performances of their lives. Especially Collins, bringing warmth, depth, and compassion to every word while sliding in and out of dementia. This is virtuoso acting.
At it’s core, though, Quartet focuses on a broken love affair, a marriage between Smith and Courtenay that was over before it began. Watching these two gifted actors struggle for forgiveness, for dignity in their loss of vocal abilities, and for the broken pride inherent to their circumstances is what great storytelling is made of. It’s all in the eyes!
Quartet is more than a love story between two people. It is a love story between the artist and his/her art. The passion and integrity that the true artist commits to the craft, in this case opera singing; and the hits the artist’s ego takes when the gift begins to erode.
Hoffman wisely inserted an apt quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet that “criticism cannot reach the true artist.”
So true. And so important for those of us who put creative work on display.
There are so many brilliantly realized, thoughtful, and exquisitely owned moments in Quartet that I run the risk of minimizing them by trying to list them here. The work here is across the board spectacularly connected to genuine emotion.
Quartet is the kind of film I used to bring to my late mother-in-law when she lived with us. It was one of those little gestures that brought so much joy to a loved one mostly confined to her room. If she was alive today she would be an avid Downton Abbey fan – and she would have thoroughly enjoyed Quartet.
Man, do I miss her.
Lastly, big props to Dustin Hoffman. His delicate direction and obvious affection for not only this material and for opera, but for the entire cast, should be a master study for anyone working towards taking the reigns of an independent film. Hoffman’s ‘Director’s Commentary’ on the DVD special features is a wonderful way to sit through this special film a second time.
And then go ahead and watch it a third time, maybe with a grandparent or neighbor who needs a boost. That’s what we did.