Quartet (Movie) written by Ronald Harwood (based on his play); directed by Dustin Hoffman; starring Maggie
Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Dame Gwyneth Jones
There was one question in my mind on approaching this movie: would it be anything more than a pleasant outing for some
of Britain’s most distinguished actors?
It’s more – and less.
A charming mansion in the English countryside functions as a home for retired musicians. They’re busy preparing for
the annual gala to raise funds for the institution. We hear bits of chorus numbers, arias, quartets, chamber music, even tinpan
alley tunes, coming from every corner of the elegant old building. Meanwhile, there are rivalries, flirtations and secret
indulgences: booze, cigarettes.
Into the mix comes Jean Horton (Maggie Smith), a newcomer, who was one of the great sopranos of her day. Only problem is,
one of her former husbands, a tenor (Tom Courtenay), is also a resident. He’s not happy to see her, given some bad stuff
that went down between them. But he and she were famous, along with another two residents (a baritone and a mezzo), for their
performances in Rigoletto. The big hope is that they can persuade the haughty Ms Horton to join in a performance, for
the gala, of the opera’s famous quartet.
She’s having none of it. The attempt to persuade her takes up the rest of the movie. (Sorry to reveal that much plot,
but there’s nothing else.) Thus we get the old chestnut of the build-up to the big game, the big race, the big contest....or
whatever. But it was rather difficult for me to get on board because I felt the Maggie Smith character was quite right to
refuse. Opera singers in their seventies and eighties – especially sopranos – do not and should not perform
demanding operatic repertoire in public. It’s ridiculous to think that anything admirable could be accomplished, given
the inexorable decline of the human voice, due to physical factors. That’s a sad fact of the artistic life and any movie
that tries to fly in the face of it has a hard time winning my respect.
By way of any other plot element, it looks sometimes like there could be some drama developing between Ms Horton and her
former husband. There are a couple of moments of awkwardness when they’re first encountering each other and you think:
ah, this is going to be interesting! But the issues between them are resolved – like everything else in this
movie – with no more than the equivalent of a flick of a lace-trimmed hankie. Mr. Courtenay, with his wounded pride,
is very good. And Maggie Smith, of course, can’t be faulted. Except that I think the script doesn’t show her at
her best. In trying for a reconciliation, she makes one very affecting speech: "I’m sorry for hurting you. Please be
kind to me." That’s a stunner. But you can’t help wondering if Ms. Smith is the right person to be saying it.
Maybe she’s not at her best when it comes to beseeching. Maybe she’s better at maintaining an aristocratic disdain.
Or is this simply a case where my impressions of an actor in another role – let’s say, the Dowager Countess in
Downton Abbey – are bleeding too much into my impressions of her in this role?
As for the other two members of the quartet, the actors are hampered by their roles. The simpering and slightly demented
prattle from Sissie (Pauline Collins) goes on too much. But it’s not as tiresome as the constant sexual innuendo of
Wilf (Billy Connolly). At some point, it’s suggested that this unfortunate tic has something to do with damage to his
brain. But that doesn’t make it any more palatable. Are we supposed to find it cute or entertaining that this geezer
can’t stop making sexual remarks to women? I find it nauseating.
And yet, there is undeniably, a kind of beauty to the film. Everybody’s photographed with loving attention to glowing
eyes in wrinkled faces. The interiors of the mansion are enough to make lovers of wallpaper and upholstery drool. We get lots
of romantic, wistful vistas of the gorgeous countryside. And there’s the music. How could a movie fail completely
when it’s packed with so many of the highlights of classical – and especially operatic – music?
Still, you have to wonder why Dustin Hoffman would be interested in taking on a trifle that makes The Best Exotic Marigold
Hotel look Shakespearean in its complexity and profundity. Surely Mr. Hoffman can’t be desperate for work at this
stage of his life. My guess is that the attraction of the material for him was that it offered a chance for a fond, sentimental
tribute to the veterans of the performing world. The movie gives you the feeling that he loved working with them. Real-life
opera star Dame Gwyneth Jones shows herself to be a good sport in playing the part of a posturing diva who’s emphatically
up-staged by the Maggie Smith character. During the credits, we see vintage photos of many of the people who did bit parts
in the movie and we learn that they were actually once celebrated opera and theatre stars. What fun it must have been for
them all to be performing again.
Capsule comment: All frosting, no cake.
Side Effects (Movie) written by Scott Z. Burns; directed by Steven Soderberg; starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara,
Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones; with Polly Draper, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia, Ann Dowd
At first, this one looks like nothing but a documentary on the dangerous aspects of anti-depressants. We’ve got this
young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), who seems very depressed. Jude Law plays Dr. Jonathan Banks, the psychiatrist who encounters
her in hospital after her apparent suicide attempt. You can tell he’s a good guy by the sympathetic tilt of his head
when he’s listening to her. But he keeps putting her on one drug after another and they all have terrible results. Meanwhile,
he’s recruited to take part in a lucrative (for him) drug trial. What is this movie trying to tell us? That you should
be wary of the chicanery of psychiatrists? Do we movie-goers really need this message?
But then something terrible happens and the real story clicks in. (Most reviews will probably tell you what happened but
we don’t do spoilers like that here at Dilettante’s Diary.) It seems that Dr. Banks is to blame. The media
are after him. His partners in his medical practice are enraged. Issues of patient/physician confidentiality arise. After
a while, you begin to wonder who’s conning whom. A courtroom trial looms. In other words, what’s evolving is a
medical-financial-legal mystery. To tell the truth, your humble reviewer wasn’t able to catch all the implications of
the complicated turn of events but they were entertaining.
At the centre of the storm, Jude Law’s thoughtful, professional and attractive, with just enough of an undercurrent
of anxiety about his own professional status to make him interesting. Rooney Mara’s lean features are like a blank sheet
on which Emily’s wildly-swinging moods are written. There’s not much for Tatum Channing, as Emily’s husband,
to do. Almost any mildly studly actor could have filled the bill, as there’s little opportunity to show any of the charm
and humour that have marked Mr. Tatum’s appearances in other movies. I found Catherine Zeta-Jones, as a shrink who’d
previously treated Emily, odd. There’s a slow, languid quality to her performance that makes it seem affected. We eventually
find that there may be reasons for her seeming a little strange. Still, I’m not sure that what we were seeing wasn’t
simply a case of bad acting. Someone who made a much better impression was Ann Dowd. As Emily’s mother-in-law, Ms Dowd
gave us touching glimpses of a very ordinary woman struggling to respond decently to troubling situations.
The movie as a whole is sleek and stylish. All the Manhattan interiors are modern and gleaming. (Dr Banks has wonderful
paintings on the walls of his consulting room.) A slightly sci-fi sound to the music keeps reminding us that there’s
something weird going down. There’s a good rhythm to the movie: many short, fragmentary scenes overlapping each other
with, occasionally, the insertion of a long scene. I think there’s an attempt to convey a certain existential angst
but none of the dialogue is particularly engaging or thought-provoking. By way of profundity, all the the shrinks –
or their scriptwriters – can come up with is banal stuff along the lines of: "The best prediction of future behaviour
is past behaviour."
Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Sleek, entertaining and superficial.
Van Cliburn (Memories)
Although Van Cliburn had retired from public performance long before he died yesterday, at age 78, his star still shone
very brightly around here.
Who could forget the hoop-la surrounding his 1958 Gold Medal win at the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow? Given that
it was the era of the cold war, it seemed that he had accomplished something miraculous in winning the hearts of the Soviets
with his artistry. We all felt we were there in the crowd at Manhattan’s celebratory ticker tape parade for him. It
was impossible for the thrill of all that to fade completely over the following decades.
Besides, I had special personal memories of him.
In the mid 1960s, I was a student at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ont. Van Cliburn was performing at the
university’s brand new Alumni Hall. During the intermission, a friend suggested that we go backstage to meet the star.
Such a thing would never have occurred to me, but I tagged along as my brash pal found a route to penetrate behind the
To my amazement, we were greeted cordially. Throughout the intermission, it was mostly Van’s mother who chatted with
us. (Her name, as I subsequently learned, was one that nobody but a Texas belle could have borne with dignity: "Rilda Bee.")
She was telling us about the time when Van phoned her from the Julliard School in New York, where he was studying, to ask
whether he should enter the Tchaikovsky competition. She told us that she said: "You put the phone down right now and you
go over and kneel down in the corner and ask the Lord Jesus what you should do."
Apparently, the Lord gave the go-ahead for Moscow.
The only thing I remember Van saying to us directly had to do with the opening of the concert at UWO. In those days, it
was customary for concerts to begin with the national anthem. The idea was that it emphasized the solemnity of the occasion.
But Van had played God Save the Queen instead of O Canada. When we asked about that, he told us that he had
suddenly panicked in the limo on the way to the concert hall, when he realized he couldn’t remember the tune of O
Canada. "I asked my momma, I said ‘Momma, how does it go?’" But Rilda Bee couldn’t remember either;
so we got God Save the Queen.
While we were standing there chatting, someone gave Van the signal to start the second half of the program. He strode out
on stage, elegant and confident, as ever. Only trouble was: nobody had informed the audience that the intermission was over.
There was Van, standing on stage, facing an audience milling around and talking in the full glare of the house lights.
Showing himself to be the supreme and gracious showman that he was, he simply launched into a little lecture about the
piece he was going to play next. He turned to the piano, while still standing, to demonstrate a few phrases. When the audience
had settled and the house lights had dimmed, he sat down and began to play.
We stayed backstage for the entire second half of the concert. Rilda Bee and Van seemed to accept us as if we were part
of the family. After the thunderous ovation that ended the concert, people were bringing their kids to Van to introduce them
as hopeful pianists. He’d grab each kid’s hand in his own enormous paw, turn the kid’s hand over and examine
it as if to see whether it showed any pianistic potential.
Of course, such an examination doesn’t reveal anything. But how else was a star going to show an interest in the
kids presented to him?