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Monday at the Toronto Film Festival bore witness to the duel of the Quartet films. The similarities between this duo of Quartets was bound to cause some confusion. Both films have major stars in the titular roles, deal with classical music and feature past and present transgressions surfacing just before an important performance by the group. The first of the two, Quartet, is the directorial debut of Dustin Hoffman. Benjamin Braddock brings the Brit heavy hitters Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins and the divinely randy Scotsman, Billy Connelly. The second film in this duet, A Late Quartet, stars Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mark Ivanir and Christopher Walken as members of a rapidly dissolving string quartet. One film is good, and the other is very good.
Let’s start with the good one. Dustin Hoffman’s comedy Quartet is based on a play by Ronald Harwood (who also adapted). Set in a British old folks home that caters to former classical musicians, Quartet deals with the secret arrival of the most famous member of a group known for its performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto Quartet. The arrival of Jean (Maggie Smith) yields a varying degree of response from the other three members already present at the home. The dotty Cissy (Pauline Collins), whose mind is quickly deteriorating, is happy to see her fellow female singer. Wilf (Billy Connolly) is too busy playing the dirty old man to register much of an opinion, but he’s worried about his pal, Reginald (Tom Courtenay). Reginald and Jean have a history so painful that Reginald freaks out when he learns of her arrival.
Meanwhile, the annual Beecham House fundraiser is underway. Celebrating Verdi’s birthday, the denizens put on a show for money. Hoffman surrounds his non-singing actors with a plethora of actual classical musicians and singers, each of whom had a major career in Britain when they were younger. Under the direction of Michael Gambon’s hilariously cranky musical director, these performers are granted a few moments for onscreen performances of their still formidable talents. But Quartet’s main interest is in whether the four original members will put aside their differences to perform the Rigoletto Quartet one more time. With the return of Jean, the most famous of the bunch, this will raise an ungodly sum of money and keep Beecham House open.
We’re dealing with a bunch of hams here, and I enjoyed watching them in this familiar story. Smith is in fine form—no one delivers a mean glance or a devastating putdown like she can. Connolly gets the brunt of the one-liners, all delivered in his gorgeously raunchy Scottish accent. Courtenay, no stranger to Harwood’s work (he got an Oscar nod for The Dresser), carries most of the dramatic scenes, lashing out in anger at Jean, his true love who cheated on him 9 hours after they were married. And Pauline Collins brings a comic realism to Cissy, whose moments of lucidity are becoming farther apart as time passes.
Though he allows the real musicians to shine, Hoffman wisely does NOT show us any of the actors doing Marni Nixon impressions; we know damn well they can’t sing opera. The newbie director pitches Quartet at a quick pace so we’ve little time to register and critique its clichés until long after it is over. The cin-tog by John de Borman is a standout, and while Quartet is no gem, it’s cute and diverting. I had fun watching the actors go at it, especially Michael Gambon who, in one scene, is dressed eerily like Albus Dumbledore.
Covering similar ground in terms of relationship dynamics, A Late Quartet is far more dramatic than Quartet, though not without the former’s sense of humor at times. The pedigree of actors involved was enough to raise interest, so I was surprised at how many empty seats I saw at the theater during the film’s world premiere here in Toronto. Director and co-screenwriter Yaron Zilberman guides his cast through a number of issues en route to their potential last performance together, and his actors respond with consistently good work. Though each of the four leads are memorable, Christopher Walken rises above his colleagues; his performance is fantastic and the best one I’ve seen at the festival thus far. Like his character, Walken is the glue that holds this quartet together. Achingly vulnerable yet still the Walken we know and love, he delivers masterfully. His last scene is heartbreaking yet hopeful, and the actor is in full control of the situation.
Walken’s Peter Mitchell is the oldest member of the a string quartet about to celebrate its 25th anniversary together. The other members are two former students, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir) and the woman Peter and his wife took in and nurtured, Juliette. Juliette and Robert are married with one daughter, Alexandra, a violinist being taught by Daniel. Juliette plays the viola and Peter plays cello. Robert, the more passionate musician, is second violin; Daniel, the perfectionist, is first violin. For years, Robert has coveted the first violin chair but has remained silent for the good of the group. Daniel has coveted Alexandra, but has also kept his desires in check for the sake of the quartet.
The first blow to the quartet’s survival is Peter’s Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. This will eventually rob him of his cello-playing skills, a symptom that’s already starting to manifest, so Peter tells the group they need to find a replacement. If he’s well enough to do the 25th anniversary concert, he’ll do so and then announce his retirement. Sensing this as a moment of change, Robert suggests he and Daniel alternate on first and second chair. This registers as the second blow to the quartet’s survival. Toss in marital problems, mother-daughter relationship anguish and Alexandra’s realization that Daniel has a thing for her, and all hell breaks loose.
The cast avoids the more melodramatic pitfalls of this material (though melodrama is not a bad thing by my standards). Ivanir credibly balances his rigid compulsions with his sudden leap into the spontaneity of his doomed relationship with Alexandra. Keener is cold yet sympathetic as a wife whose marriage may or may not be one of convenience. Hoffman is the quartet’s id, proving the Biblical quote about pride going before destruction. (Check your Bible, it’s “pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before the fall.”) And Walken’s elder statesman conveys strength despite the double whammy of his prognosis and his opera singer wife Miriam’s recent demise. It’s almost comical that, for all the shit he’s going through, he still has to be the grown-up as the rest of his team crashes and burns. “Get out of my house!” he tells them at the height of their tumult, and Walken’s exasperation puts the viewer squarely in his corner.
Of the two, A Late Quartet is the better film. I was glad to have seen both on the same day, as they’d make a good double feature. On that day, I also saw Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, which I’ll talk about next time.