Beecham House. Founded in 1896 by Guiseppe Verdi, it's a beautiful retirement home for professional musicians. With a single glance from the outside, you can easily tell that the big old mansion is a place of charm and character. But it's the old characters inside who give Beecham its true charm.
There are clarinetists and violinists, sopranos and tenors, conductors and directors, all the greats from the British stage. You can hear their beautiful music floating through the halls as they gear up for a gala benefit.
Each year these paled performers pull together and perform some of their best material from the past in hopes of raising enough money to keep the home afloat. Of course, it's not always an easy task to accomplish. Each of these artists comes packing his own idiosyncrasies, her own habits and quirks.
There's Wilf Bond, who can't seem to stop himself from dropping ribald proposals in the ear of every woman he passes. There's Reginald Paget, who's good with the kids—teaching classes to the teens who visit—but is also rather moody and reserved. And there's Cissy Robson, the sweetest of women and a great talent in her day, but now quite forgetful and dotty. Getting them (and all the others) together on the same page of music can be the rehearsal room equivalent of herding cats.
Now add one more to mix: This year the very famous Jean Horton has moved into Beecham House. She was a true diva. The greatest of greats. But now she's all but a recluse, depressed about everything that old age has stolen from her.
Of course they need her to join Wilf, Reggie and Cissy in singing the quartet from Rigoletto at the gala. It'd be a grand regrouping of great voices that once was praised as one of the greatest performances ever staged. It'd mean they could sell enough tickets to solve all of Beecham's financial woes.
Jean, however, never sings anymore. She rarely deigns to talk. Reggie was briefly married to Jean at one point, but she broke his heart so badly that he's now tormented by the sight of her. Cissy's good days involve her remembering where she is. And Wilf? Who knows what bedroom door he's knocking on at the moment.
For all their conflicts and struggles we eventually learn that Wilf, Reggie, Cissy and Jean are all good friends at their core. And they reclaim that bond by movie's end. We learn along the way that Reggie moved into Beecham as an act of friendship, doing so to help Wilf after he had a stroke.
Cissy tells her friends, "This place is a godsend for me 'cause I've got no husband and no children. I've got you. All of you."
Reggie and many others in the home take the time to teach local young people through classes and lessons. In several segments we see the elderly, learned residents gather and cheer on the scratchy, beginning performances of the kids.
Indeed, Quartet goes out of its way to make it plain that life is something to be enjoyed and shared. It says that there is much to be learned from those who've gone before. And that there's still more to be learned at any age.
[Spoiler Warning] It becomes evident with time that Reggie and Jean have always loved each other dearly. And the movie communicates that even though things such as foolish infidelity can cause anguish, forgiveness can be a soothing balm. The two forgive each other and decide to marry once more.
It's never quite clear whether Wilf's unfiltered, randy comments are related to a previous stroke (as Reggie implies) or are simply a part of the persona he's adopted. For the film's purposes, it doesn't much matter: The elderly man flirts with nearly every female, of every age, he encounters.
He talks frankly (and crudely) about the quality of Cissy's breasts and openly asks a young French maid if she'd like to share a little "rumpy-pumpy" with him. The libidinous fellow also tries to hug the nurses and talks about the male obsession with sex. He recounts several stories of other performers' sexual trysts. (None of the descriptions are graphic, but all are jokingly crude.)
While taking a walk, Reggie and Jean disturb the French maid and another worker who scramble up from behind a bush (fully clothed) holding a blanket. "We weren't doing anything," the man stammers. Jean replies, "Neither were we."
[Spoiler Warning] We eventually find out that Jean's brief (stupid) fling with a tenor was what destroyed her marriage with Reggie. She states that it (along with admitting it to Reggie) was the "worst decision of her life."
Jean hits Cissy with some flowers. Cissy runs away … and then falls. Wilf warns another Beecham resident, whom he's been trading barbs with, that he'll shove his fork up the man's backside.
Crude or Profane Language
Two f-words. Two or three uses each of "b‑‑ch," "h‑‑‑" and "a‑‑." The cast of British actors also spit out "bloody" and "s-d off" a time or two each. God's name is improperly interjected a half-dozen times. A man angrily calls a woman a "tw-t." Breasts are called "t-ts."
Drug and Alcohol Content
A Beecham House resident smokes and is warned against such action by the house physician, Dr. Cogan (who we also see smoking later). Wilf has a glass of scotch. Jean, Cissy, Wilf and Reggie share a bottle of wine at dinner. When Jean accuses the men of being drunk, Wilf says, "I think I am, but at this age it's hard to tell the difference."
Other Negative Elements
Wilf tells a story about an old friend who could "fart at will." Later (blaming his enlarged prostate), we see him urinating outdoors in the shrubbery. He grabs his crotch as a joke.
A cherry right off the tree is a delight. It's a little tart, a little sweet. And even those cherries past their prime, those old enough to have a spot or two, can still be an enjoyable treat.
Yes, I'm now going to compare cherries to movies. Well-made and well-acted films, you see, can also be flavorful things in spite of their spots. And Quartet proves the point. Spoiled bits in this case are a handful of foul and profane utterances accompanied by mildly randy humor—parts of the pic that one would wish had been pared out and left in the editing bay compost can. But the rot doesn't steal away all of the film's flavor in this case.
The tale, culled from a 1984 documentary called Tosca's Kiss and adapted then into stage play form and, finally, a screenplay, is a tasty story of beautiful music and colorful old characters well past their prime. Those crusty ladies and gents certainly have their tart side as they battle physical ailments, hoist personal baggage and dwell on past moments of renown and regret. But, ultimately, theirs is a film that bursts with sweet sentiments.
It clearly proclaims that it's never too late to start anew. You're never too old, it says, to forgive, to love, to find joy in friends and the family around you. You can teach the young and learn from life at any age. It just takes a bit of doing. A little effort.
Bette Davis once said, "Getting old is not for sissies." And it's not fun for Cissy and her pals, either. Soon enough, we all learn the truth of that statement. But Quartet reminds us that the aging process, the journey it entails, is well worth the doing and well worth enjoying.