By Jared Young

Mailed on January 17, 2013

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Dear Barney Pilling

Dear Barney,

There's a certain musicality to your craft. It's all about tempo, rhythm, building something whole and linear from disparate pieces. Like the baton-waving conductor who keeps time at the dais in front of an orchestra, you bear a heavy responsibility: arranging a suite of virtuoso performances. In the case of your new feel-good film Quartet, the virtuosos are some of the British stage and screen's most notable performers: Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, and everyone's favorite dowager sourpuss, Maggie Smith. Unfortunately for them (and for their formidable talents), Quartet is a familiar piece of music.

There's the charitable institution fallen on hard times (an old-folks' home for the musically inclined), a scrappy scheme to raise funds (a big show for the local townsfolk), and elderly people overcoming their fear of old age to indulge in the thrills of their youth (we tread dangerously close, at one point, to one of them breaking into a rap).

That you're working with a first-time director (some wide-eyed upstart named Dustin Hoffman) makes your job slightly more difficult. There is evidence of corrective measures throughout: cutting into similar shots, awkward fades to black between scenes. Hoffman moves the camera a lot, and you do a good job of finding purpose in it, even if you have to occasionally cheat the rules of filmic language to get from one shot to the next.

The most obvious of these cheats is the very last cut of the film. In the seconds before the climactic performance starts - with all of our stars finally back on the stage, perhaps for the last time - we cut suddenly to a magic-hour exterior crane shot of the building, over which we hear their operatic quartet begin.

Would it have been more graceless to reveal, through the magic of sound editing, the booming voice of a mezzo-soprano coming out of little Maggie Smith? Or a tenor's bellow from Billy Connolly's open mouth? Who can say--but it certainly felt just as dishonest to abandon our characters at the very moment their strife, struggle and doubt is finally overcome.

In the end, the familiar tune is well-played. But only in the same manner that "Frere Jacques" might be well-played by the London Philharmonic. Great artists cruising too easily through elementary material.



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