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Billy refuses to act his age

Billy Connolly relished his role as Wilf in Dustin Hoffman's star studded directorial debut, Quartet.

PT3M23S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2bkdv 620 349

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I sense the stirrings of a new screen genre - the feel-good retirement home movie.

It started earlier this year with the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which sent Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and a senior repertory company of great British character actors off to enjoy late-life high jinks in India. Then we had the French film, And If We All Lived Together, with Jane Fonda, Geraldine Chaplin and French veterans Claude Rich, Pierre Richard and Guy Bedos adopting a communal lifestyle in their old age.

Now comes Quartet, a slightly more sedate effort on the same theme. No one negotiates the Udaipur traffic on a motorbike or lingers over a gin and tonic in the bar of a palace hotel, hoping to meet someone new, but everybody is having a pretty good time. We're in green and tranquil Buckinghamshire where a Georgian mansion has been converted into Beecham House, a retirement home for singers and musicians. A string quartet rehearses in the gazebo, the house divas warm up their vocal cords before enjoying a generous English breakfast and the jazz and pop people bristle at the condescension of the classicists. Old rivalries persist and while some recollections are unreliable, everybody has kept a precise tally of every curtain call they have ever taken.

Stills from the motion picture. Quartet. Supplied

Charmer... Billy Connolly is Wilf, a former opera singer whose ardour has not been cooled by a stroke.

Billy Connolly is there, cast as Wilf, a former opera singer whose recent stroke has only heightened his fondness for chatting up women 35 years his junior. Nothing comes of these overtures but his chat-up lines, which are probably improvised, do liven up the script, which was adapted by Ronald Harwood from his play. It opened in the West End in 1999 when it was briskly savaged by several of the London critics who lamented the lameness of its ending and its failure to say anything significant about getting old. Well, Dustin Hoffman, who's making his debut as a director, has fixed the ending without doing much about the other thing. But it doesn't matter since he's snared a highly watchable constellation of ageing stars, adept at making nothing seem highly amusing.

Tom Courtenay plays Wilf's best pal, Reggie, and Pauline Collins is their friend, Cissy, whose short-term memory loss has done nothing to impair her joie de vivre. The three performed together in a much admired production of Rigoletto and they're rejoicing in its re-release when Maggie Smith enters the picture. She's in Downton Abbey mode as Jean, who also sang in the Rigoletto production. More important, she was briefly married to Reggie, who's still nursing his resentment over a fling she had with an Italian tenor. Now she, too, has come to live at Beecham House and she's very much hoping that Reggie will make peace with her.

Harwood has steeped himself in theatrical lore since serving his stage apprenticeship as personal dresser to the Shakespearean actor Sir Donald Wolfit. That experience was the basis of his 1980 hit play, The Dresser, which was turned into a film, winning Courtenay a Golden Globe. And this film resonates with his affection for the art of performance and its practitioners. In the case of Beecham House's residents, their bodies may be faltering but their egos are as healthy as ever. Nonetheless, the camaraderie between them is even stronger - as Jean will eventually realise. But she has to make up her mind if she can bring herself to perform again. Michael Gambon, who comes equipped with a wardrobe of embroidered caftans and velvet smoking caps, is cast as Cedric, a retired director with a taste for tyranny. And he's putting on a gala concert to mark the anniversary of Verdi's birthday.

As you have surely realised, there are no great revelations or emotional extremes to be found in any of this - although there is a certain amount of acting up. Cedric is an expert in this department and Jean and Reggie don't do too badly either - although they do know exactly when to stop before it gets boring.

When Jean arrives, Reggie sulks until she eventually gets him to stop, which means we're treated to the rare - and entertaining - sight of Maggie Smith trying to ingratiate herself with somebody. But the best bits come in their quieter moments together when they're reminiscing and imagining what might have been. Courtenay, looking dapper in blazer and cravat, also has a terrific scene which has him giving a talk on opera to some visiting school kids who prefer rap.

The supporting cast is largely made up of retired music-makers, with the soprano Gwyneth Jones cast as one of Jean's old rivals - a woman who not only remembers all her curtain calls but makes sure that everybody else does. And familiar television faces Trevor Peacock and David Ryall are great as two old vaudevillians who persistently annoy Cedric and the opera singers with their rendition of Are We Having Fun?

In the end, it does have something to say about ageing - that it can be done with grace, humour and good fellowship.

Twitter: @SandraHFilm

QUARTET

Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Rated M, 98 minutes