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Film review: Quartet, Maggie Smith stars in a retirement comedy with a touch of lumbago


As portraits of old age go, Quartet is better than that other recent retirement comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but only in the way a touch of lumbago is better than shingles. The link between them is Maggie Smith, who plays in both films a querulous old lady in need of a hip replacement.

A racist ratbag in Marigold Hotel, here she's a once-renowned opera singer arriving at a genteel retirement home for classical performers like herself. Naturally, she's a study in pinched hauteur – no one looks down their nose quite like Dame Maggie – and at first refuses to partake of the pensioner camaraderie or to lend her services to the charity show they're putting on to celebrate Verdi's birthday.

I'm not sure how this ossified play by Ronald Harwood could be rejuvenated, and Dustin Hoffman's impersonal direction provides no miracle cure. Perhaps he thought the cast would take care of themselves. I passed the time deciding which of them was the most annoying – the potty-mouthed old goat (Billy Connolly), the forgetful Mrs Pepperpot (Pauline Collins) or the bumptious luvvie producer (Michael Gambon).

Tom Courtenay is an elegant cut above the rest as Dame Maggie's heartbroken ex-husband, though he too must endure a mortifying scene in which he attempts to posit a link between opera and rap. The producers needn't have bothered with that: nobody under the age of 25 will voluntarily watch Quartet, and on this occasion I don't blame them.

Old age is a tricky one for cinema. On the one hand, we can't bear too much of the reality Michael Haneke brings to it in Amour, however great its accomplishment. On the other, we shouldn't have to sit through feeble stuff like this, with its patronising view of "silly old folk" and its stale arthritic jokes.

There is a great film to be made about ageing. There are great actors to play in it. Are there writers up for a challenge?