Yet, what could have been a stunningly elegiac film about the descent, both tragic and comic, into old age, with its attendant disappointments and disasters, misses on too many levels for it to be considered successful. It doesn’t have the sincerity, nor the just-beneath-the-surface tragedy, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – a film which deals with many of the same issues of expended lives, triumphs and tribulations.
The storyline is predictable, inoffensively so, but predictable nonetheless. An old age home is populated exclusively by old musicians who are living out the remainder of their days gently sniping, bitching, supporting and even loving each other. They are preparing for the annual Gala to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. It is never explained why Verdi alone is accorded this dubious honour. They worry about their failing faculties and general elderliness in an endearing but not particularly profound or even interestingly engaging way. They are just musical, old people pottering about in various stages of decrepitude.
The central dramatic conceit of the film is the appearance of the new old kid on the block. Dame Maggie Smith as soprano diva and one time bitch Jean Horton is the spanner that Ronald Harwood, who has adapted the screenplay from his own play of the same name, introduces to provide, as it were, the grit of sand in the oyster from which the pearl will develop. Her arrival throws the home into something of a tumult as the renewal of her past acquaintanceships, both professional and personal, upsets the home’s quasi-equilibrium. She has vowed never to sing again, age having deteriorated her ability beyond her liking. The rest of the film focuses on the efforts of the other members of the quartet that once had sung Verdi’s Rigoletto to massive public acclaim, to persuade her to join them in one final performance at the home’s Gala performance. I should not want to give the ending away. However it is a romantically fitting end to a romantically glossy film. Suffice it to say that there is not a surprising turn of events to keep us guessing.
There are some very good things in the film however. It is beautifully shot and the locations are indeed stunning. Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire looks ravishing as the main location.
In amongst the performances there are a handful which really shine through with great integrity. Whilst one has seen both Billy Connolly and Maggie Smith give similar performances before, Pauline Collins’ study of failing faculties and early onset dementia was surprising and really beautifully observed. A masterclass in understatement from an actor who we haven’t seen a huge amount of in recent years, more’s the pity. Andrew Sachs, yes Manuel of Fawlty Towers fame, though not having much to do, hinted affectingly at the depths of bewilderment that the elderly do sometimes feel. And Tom Courtenay does what he does so well. He has made something hugely dignified out of a character which, on the face of it, is just as banal as some of the others.
There are some bad things, but perhaps best not to dwell to long on them, except to say that Dustin Hoffman, the director, really should have had a quiet word with Michael Gambon. The performance is as crass and overblown as some of his other performances have been nuanced and brilliant.
It’s a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours. But no more than that.