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“Quartet”: Better Late Than Never

January 2, 2013

Every year, it seems, one movie sneaks up on me right after I’ve finished making my Top 10 list and awarding the Frettsies and makes its case for revisions. In 2012, it was the Woody Harrelson cop drama Rampart;  this time around, it’s one of the year’s most unexpected movies: Quartet.

Haven’t heard of it yet? Maybe you will. The Weinstein Co. snuck it in just under the deadline for year-end awards. So far, all it’s received is a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Dame Maggie Smith, but I wouldn’t count it out of the Oscar race yet. With its modest scale, it plays well on the small screen, which is how most Oscar voters will view it (as did I), and the aging Academy demographic will surely identify with its tale of artists—in this case, opera singers—living out their not-so-golden years in a retirement home. Factor in the Oscars’ historic Anglophilia and the fact that it’s directed by seven-time nominee Dustin Hoffman (making a belated but promising debut behind the camera at 75) and you’ve got a legitimate contender.

Quartet may suffer from being confused with a pair of other 2012 films—A Late Quartet, another tale of a retiring musician, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which shares both the presence of Smith and an old-age home setting. But this thoroughly satisfying drama, adapted by Ronald Harwood (The Dresser) from his own play, can stand on its own, even if most of its characters require a cane.

The cast is uniformly magnificent. Downton Abbey resident Smith finds new shades of haughtiness in her role as a diva who’s sworn off singing, and Tom Courtenay (an Oscar nominee for The Dresser) matches her note for note as her rueful ex-husband. Rounding out the quartet are Billy Connolly, who seems incapable of being anything but delightful as a terminal horndog, and Pauline Collins, who’s deeply moving as the mentally faltering object of his adulation. Michael Gambon’s a scream as the hot-tempered organizer of a gala meant to keep the home afloat, and Fawlty Towers‘ Andrew “Manuel” Sachs is a welcome surprise as the event’s conductor.

As a Yank, Hoffman might seem an odd choice to direct this material, but he brings a painterly eye and a performer’s heart. By an act of cinematic alchemy, he transforms what could’ve been arthouse schmaltz into a genuine work of art. In a word: Bravo!

Have you seen any late-breaking Oscar contenders? Post a comment!

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