‘Quartet’ celebrates living in the moment

“Quartet” (2012). Cast: Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Michael Byrne, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall, Eline Powell, Luke Newberry, Shola Andewusi, Jumayn Hunter. Director: Dustin Hoffman. Screenplay: Ronald Harwood. Play: Ronald Harwood. Web site. Trailer.

Many of us regrettably spend large parts of our lives chasing ever-elusive impressions of what was or what we hope might be. But, in doing so, we tend to neglect who and where we are in our lives, missing out on the joys of what they have to offer. Learning how to immerse ourselves in that often-ignored present moment is what the delightful new comedy, “Quartet,” is all about.

Life’s aflutter at the Beecham House Home for Retired Musicians. The converted estate in the idyllic English countryside provides a pleasant retirement setting for an eclectic assortment of operatic singers, instrumentalists, conductors and musical comedy performers. The home’s capable staff attends to the residents’ health care needs in their sunset years while simultaneously providing a full program of activities to keep the seniors alert and vital, with a strong emphasis on encouraging them to continue doing what they do best – performing.

At first glance, living at Beecham House sounds like a great booking. But it’s not without its challenges – and its drama. Chief among the challenges are the facility’s finances, which always seem to teeter on the brink of collapse. It’s a prospect the residents seek to offset by putting on an annual gala featuring the ample in-house talent, theatrically coordinated by the home’s pompous, often-befuddled artistic director, Cedric Livingston (Michael Gambon). He perpetually struggles to put together a good show, despite frequently getting in his own way and allowing others’ antics or foibles to frustrate him in sufficiently overblown fashion.

But Cedric’s inflated trials and tribulations aren’t the only drama besetting Beecham House. The home’s fragile stability gets seriously upset with the arrival of a new resident, retired vocalist Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a diva of the first order. Her presence makes others uneasy, particularly Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay), one of Jean’s former operatic collaborators – and ex-husbands – who received no advance warning of her arrival. But there are also those who are glad to see her, such as two other former colleagues, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins). In fact, it’s quite ironic that they have been all reunited under one roof, since this foursome had once achieved tremendous acclaim for their inspired performance of the quartet scene from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Despite the prevailing tension brought about by these unexpected events, the reunion also gives Cedric a flash of inspiration: Why not feature the reunited quartet as the centerpiece attraction of the upcoming gala? Such an artistic coup would undoubtedly flood the Beecham House coffers with much-needed cash. All that’s required is getting the four performers to agree to do it – an outcome that’s far easier said than done. Wilf, for example, battles an array of health issues, while Cissy fades in and out of reality with bouts of dementia. Reggie, meanwhile, is unsure of wanting to have any contact with Jean, let alone perform with her. And, as for Jean, the grand dame accustomed to endless accolades for her magnificent performances, is skittish about stepping onto the stage now that her singing voice has faded from the pinnacle of its past glory.

Will the quartet make its triumphant return to the stage? And, if so, what drama must be resolved in order to get to that point? It’s a spectacle sure to play out as dramatically as anything featured at La Scala.

As noted above, all too often, we go through life focused on what was and what will be instead of paying attention to what is. We allow our lives to be dictated by thoughts of our past or our future, ignoring those of the present. But this can be a serious misstep. Indeed, as conscious creation practitioners are well aware, the point of power is in the present, the only moment over which we have any direct, meaningful control. Rather than seizing the opportunity that working in this instant provides, we instead tend to become preoccupied with beliefs – the driving force in reality creation – related to who we were, what we did, what we think we should have done, who we believe we should be and what we need to do to realize such goals. By doing so, however, we often lose sight of what we have going on for us in the present moment. We may thus overlook seeing where we truly are and what opportunities are available to us. This can lead to frustration, regret and resentment, qualities that can build up substantially over time and potentially lock us into cycles from which escape becomes difficult, if not impossible.

Such considerations should be (but often aren’t) paramount in the minds of those who are in the late stages of life. With the clock running, the number of present moments available to us dwindles, providing fewer opportunities to resolve issues, to learn new skills and/or to grow as individuals. In light of this, then, do we really want to get to the end and look back at our lives with recollections couched in qualifiers of “if only…”?

Given the advancing age of the characters in this film, these considerations weigh heavily on their minds. Each of them approaches these questions depending on their prevailing outlooks, but those who are committed to living in the moment seem to have the best quality of life.

Wilf, for instance, openly admits that he hates the pitfalls of growing old, but he refuses to let them define who he is. He remains a spry, mischievous, flirtatious soul who still loves to entertain (in every sense of the word), seeking to make the most of the time he has left. Reggie also looks to stay vital by regularly teaching classes to young musicians, even seeking to learn as much from them as he hopes to impart to them. As for Cissy, she may suffer from dementia, but she remains ever cheerful; while some may see her condition as sad, Cissy’s creation of her blissfully oblivious demeanor may very well provide her with a buffer against the impending inevitability, allowing her to enjoy her present without the burden of thoughts of an uncertain future impinging on it.

Jean’s handling of her circumstances, however, presents a mixed bag. Upon reconnecting with Reggie, she hopes for a reconciliation, at least as friends, an attempt to make up for the hurt she caused him so many years ago. She even has the wherewithal to recognize that she and Reggie are different people from when they had their falling out, that they’re now more considerate, mature and thoughtful souls in this new present moment, one through which they could create a different life and future together (as long as they allow it).

However, despite her keen awareness of this notion in her personal life, she’s unable to see how it might be applied in her artistic life; the parallels are lost on her. Specifically, she’s terrified of performing, both at the gala or ever again, for fear that she won’t live up to her own expectations – expectations based on personal artistic standards firmly rooted in her past, demanding criteria that are unlikely to be matched going forward. But should this belief-based limitation keep her from enjoying the act of singing, something she obviously loves so much that she was able to build a long and successful career out of it? If only she would employ the same principle in her artistic life that she so readily draws upon in her personal life, then perhaps she might be able to once again freely enjoy what had given her so much pleasure and fulfillment for so many years. Her current performances may not be the same as those of her past, but is that any reason to stop giving them altogether?

If Jean were to follow the lead of her fellow Beecham residents, she might be able to rewrite her beliefs, the intents that enable her to give herself permission to return to doing what she does best. In the process, she just might find that there’s much to be gained from doing the things she loves simply for their own intrinsic enjoyment. It also provides a means for overcoming fears, limitations and loss, including its accompanying sadness. Indeed, Jean would be wise to follow Wilf’s blunt but genuinely heartfelt advice when he says to her, “just f@#king do it!”

By learning to accept and adapt to our changed circumstances – and the fact that we conceived the beliefs that created the altered reality we’re now experiencing – we have an opportunity to embrace our new existence. Rather than feeling reconciled to our fate, we can appreciate the richness of what we’ve birthed. We can value what we have, not lament what we’ve lost, seeing the glass as half full and not half empty. Such a perspective can make all the difference in what we make out of what we’ve already made.

Those looking for a breezy, pleasant, slightly frothy afternoon at the movies will undoubtedly enjoy “Quartet.” It’s enjoyable fare, with excellent production values and a fine soundtrack, in the same vein as pictures like “Enchanted April” (1992), “Local Hero” (1982) and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012). The film marks an impressive directorial debut by acting legend Dustin Hoffman, who has demonstrated here that he clearly knows how to get the most out of a cast, having assembled an awesome ensemble that turns in superb performances across the board with a striking level of chemistry seldom seen. The picture also serves as a fitting tribute to the talent and enduring longevity of England’s veteran musicians, many of whom, such as Dame Gwyneth Jones, appear in the movie.

However, despite these strengths, the picture suffers from some weaknesses in the writing. This is most noticeable in Jean’s character development; Smith does her best to work with what she’s been given (having earned a well-deserved Golden Globe Award nomination for her best supporting actress performance), though the underwritten role keeps her from showing off her considerable talent as much as she might have (she’s supposed to be a diva, for goodness sake, so let her be one!). Also, the picture’s abrupt conclusion doesn’t deliver the hoped-for payoff as well as it might have, cheating viewers a bit out of what might have been. And, with a runtime of only 98 minutes, these shortcomings could have easily been fixed with the inclusion of a little more footage to shore up these failings.

Taking the time to relish our realities before it’s too late is an aim we’d all be wise to pursue. We just might surprise ourselves, too, with what we find – and what we’ve been overlooking for far too long. “Quartet” provides us with a gentle reminder of those truths, nudging us to celebrate the miracle that is life.

Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Co.

Copyright © 2013, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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