Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Quartet: Fantasy without Special Effects

Imagine this, if you can: A retirement home set in spacious, green grounds with magnificent old trees. A retirement home where the residents—former professional musicians—are all intelligent, talented, and eager to sing and dance, despite their infirmities. A home where the staff is small, but caring and dedicated. Imagine a retirement home full of music, as groups rehearse and individuals practice, where lessons and lectures are given to youthful visitors. Now imagine all these wrinkled old has-been performers with their shaky voices and their stiff fingers contriving to put on a gala benefit performance, with all the conflicts and angst of their careers arising again. Okay, now, if you've watched a lot of British mysteries, you might be able to conjure up a highly reserved romance among the aged set. All this is major fantasy, irresistible fantasy to a certain age group, and it is realized without the benefit of any special effects in a movie called Quartet, that I happened to notice on Netflix.

You have to wonder how a movie like this gets made; who finances it? Do they make a profit? It has none of the features that are supposed to be required to make movies attractive—sex, violence, glamour, etc.—except one really big star, Maggie Smith. And did you ever hear of this movie? Maybe I missed it, but I don't think it was promoted in this country. This shows the power of the niche audience, which shouldn't be overlooked when you consider what kind of movie can turn a profit.

Quartet is based on a play by Ronald Harwood that was performed on the London stage in 1999, and the movie came out in 2012. It was Dustin Hoffman's first film as director. To his credit, the movie does not look like a play, though it could easily have been stagey. Financing was British, with help from BBC films. In Britain, the other stars are big names: Michael Gambon, Tom Courtney,  Billy Connelly. The supporting cast is made up of actual retired singers and musicians with fascinating faces.

The problem with this movie is that it is predictable, formulaic. A formulaic fantasy is going to seem lame for the wider audience, but consider this, doesn't every age group have its fantasy movies? To an oldie like me, the formulas for kids' movies are really lame and obvious, as are the formulas for teen movies, and for most of the major market movies.

The question is, how well do they work the formula? The answer is that for a certain large niche, this movie is completely engaging, and very satisfying as escapism. The characters have charming eccentricities and the acting is flawless. Almost all screen time is given to conversation, interaction, and revealing behavior. Very little time is given to the mechanics of reality: getting food on the table, getting pianos tuned, dealing with illness. People are always talking or making music. Leave the nitty-gritty of the aging process, familiar enough, to serious, edgy, innovative films. This is a sweet little piece of enchantment for those who have a lot to forget.