Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith who star in Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman.

Tom Courtenay and Maggie Smith being utterly lovely in Quartet, directed by Dustin Hoffman.

The screen adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s stage play Quartet is a quirky yet touching depiction of the lives of former opera stars grappling with their personal and professional pasts, as well as – in one case – approaching a senile future.

In its own way – there are some crafting issues which do jar a little in places – Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut succeeds in bringing the audience in touch with the realities of the music world, one in particular most of us overlook: those responsible for our own formative musical experiences are themselves getting old. And of those who don’t have a family or money to cushion them in their old age, some end up in homes like the fictional Beecham House for Retired Musicians.

An horrific situation for a professional musician. You spend your teenage years and early twenty-years handling the competitive atmosphere dripping from the walls of music college, only to find yourself having to handle similar pressures in your professional life. The critics are constantly yapping at your ankles and then there’s the ever-increasing possibility that the very tool your career is dependent on is in danger of letting you down. And after that? You find yourself back in close proximity with the very same kind of people, if not the very same individuals.

What would you rather be, a member of the audience or a professional musician?

Connolly’s performance as the over-sexed Wilf began by being over the top, but later calmed down when Maggie Smith’s Jean arrived on the scene. Her former husband of nine hours Reginald (played by Tom Courtenay) is none to pleased to find the woman who broke his heart now living in the same home as him. But it was Pauline Collins’ performance as Cissy, a woman teetering on the brink of full-blown dementia which appeared the most compelling. We don’t want to see former musicians ravaged by something none of us can control.

Those who exist in the classical music or opera bubble will find this film interesting. There is sufficient in each character’s back-story that rings true with our understanding. For those outside of the bubble, it may just help challenge one or two pre-conceptions. There are plenty of recognisable tunes which carry novices along too, including a glorious arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue for string quartet and piano. And if you see it, be sure to keep an eye out for the end credits. If you’re lucky like I was, you’ll see a former music teacher and former BBC Symphony Orchestra member given due prominence for his cameo appearance.

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