An exquisitely humane essay on death, Quartet, like the ensemble at the center of the story, deserves to be remembered more than it probably will be.
Quartet takes place at a well-appointed retirement home in a bucolic English countryside for aged virtuosos of various stripes called Beecham House, and as such the film’s gorgeous soundtrack is provided by the elderly men and women whiling away their golden years with their hard-earned musical talents. The music, which took a lifetime for the residents (many of whom are portrayed by actual elderly virtuosos) to master, now simply emanates out of them like sunlight and suffuses the entire film with a mending aura.
But the mending isn’t ever quite enough in Beecham House, where, like in any retirement home, memento mori are ubiquitous. Worsening signs of dementia and heart disease among fellow residents are constant, but everyone who lives here only ever learned to do one single thing, albeit extremely well. They can only respond to the perpetual, existential fear of annihilation by falling back into the reassuring arms of decades-formed muscle memory, conjuring forth Verdi, Schubert, Haydn, Puccini, to banish the demons. But the spell doesn’t banish them, it only slows them down, and they all know it, and they all keep playing anyway, for each other as much as for themselves.
The way Quartet triangulates the creation of beautiful music, and especially beautiful classical music, the music of the long-faded past, against the inevitability of death, is the central idea from which every other aspect of the movie, plot included, are merely branches. Beecham House is filled with men and women whose utter devotion to their craft throughout their lives, often at the expense of everything else, earned them a mark on the world. But in the closing years of their lives even that mark, which was once emblazoned across papers and programs, has faded into near illegibility. For them the act of performance itself has now become its own raison d’etre. A more gentle but nevertheless equally defiant variation on Dylan Thomas. Stage, stage against the dying of the light.
The eponymous quartet has to overcome years of calcified regret, the Ozymandian erosion of their once towering skill, blooming mental deterioration, and failing skeletons to recreate a piece from Rigoletto for which they were, many years ago, once renowned, and in so doing raise enough money to keep Beechem House open another year. The last holdout, Jean Horton (played to pristine wholeness by Maggie Smith), the most famous and skillful of the group, is only convinced after she learns that a long-time rival who also resides at Beecham House will have the finale otherwise. In one of the most poignant scenes on film in recent memory, Jean watches her rival from offstage perform to perfection Puccini’s Vissi D’arte, and in spite of her catty disregard, is helpless but to be devastated by its irrepressible beauty.
Though this is a movie about death and classical music, the truly heartrending aspect of the story is that it’s not backwards looking. Our main characters look forward, painfully, but insistently, into a future when they are all gone and forgotten, and asks what they can do while they remain. Reg (a superb Tom Courteney) lectures on opera to field-tripping high school students with believable humility and persuasiveness. Partially mentally decaying Cissy (arguably the most technically difficult performance faultlessly executed by Pauline Collins) displays a guileless love of children. Wilf (an astonishingly charming Billy Connolly) flirts with every woman he sees, regardless of age, in a manner that only Billy Connolly could make at once once shamelessly hedonistic and dignified. Beautiful young people fornicate in the bushes in the Arcadian woods which island Beecham house, not to Reg and Jean’s affront, but to their wistful nostalgia. In Quartet, our elders are not the subject of Viagra jokes, intransigent backwards attitudes on race or homosexuals, or “damn-the-torpedoes-I’m-gonna-die-anyway” truth to power mouthpieces, and neither are they self-righteous torch carriers for a golden, bygone age. They’re dignified human beings facing more forthrightly that which we all face: the eventual erasure of our imprint on human memory. They throw their hearts, their souls, their opportunities for normal relationships, the entirety of their waking lives into the fire of their art while we in the audience watch. And for a little while, the room is warmer.