A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Enrico Caruso born, 1873
On this day in 1873, the Italian operatic tenor Enrico Caruso was born in Naples. He came from a large family and his father was a manual worker. Enrico was apprenticed to a mechanical engineer aged 11 but also sang in the church choir, where his voice stood out. He took up work as a street singer, performed in cafes and had soon graduated to soirees where he would literally sing for his supper. All the while he was studying singing and eventually made his debut aged 22 at the Teatro Nuovo in Naples. By the following year, 1896, he was having publicity photographs made. Four years later he was singing at La Scala in Milan, the most prestigious opera house in Italy, possibly Europe. Two years later he was singing at Covent Garden, London. A year after that he was at the Met in New York. Caruso arrived on the scene at the same time as sound recording was becoming widespread and his powerful yet lyrical voice eminently suited the limited dynamics of early recordings. All of his recordings were made acoustically, with the tenor singing directly into a metal horn which relayed the sound directly to a cutting stylus.
Quartet (2012, dir: Dustin Hoffman)
Dustin Hoffman did some uncredited directing on the 1978 crime drama Straight Time but Quartet is his first stab at real directing. And my god does he play it safe. Taking a play from Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) as his source material and drafting in a quartet of actors who can simply do no wrong – Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins – he proceeds, in the most unshowy fashion possible, to tell the story of a home for opera singers who are in their later years, where the arrival of newly retired diva Jean Horton (Smith) sets the cat among the pigeons. It seems that years before Jean (Smith) and Reginald (Courtenay) had been married, very briefly. Why it was so briefly no one seems very sure, not even Jean and Reginald, who still nurses a broken heart.
Quartet explores those reasons but it’s also a story of age, coming to terms with mortality, the indignity of infirmity, its joys too, played out by stage thespians (even Connolly, least encrusted with gongs, is a stage man by training, being a stand-up comedian) who can bellow to the gods on a wet Tuesday evening. They know how to hold a room. It is to Hoffman’s credit that he prevents them from doing this. Michael Gambon, capable of stealing any film, even from under the noses of these illustrious gannets, he keeps in the background, as a makeshift impresario organising an evening of singing towards which the entire film points. On the way Hoffman, the most Method of actors, leaves it to these Method antichrists to do it their way. What’s doubly interesting is that as an actor he’s closely associated with Americana, the city and urban angst (Midnight Cowboy, All the President’s Men, Kramer vs Kramer) but here as a director he’s throwing in shots of English churches and the sun slanting over manicured lawns, while the soundtrack is a blancmange of woodwind and muted emotion.
A couple of things Hoffman gets wrong – Reginald explaining to a gang of kids that opera is in fact just like rap, that’s likely to get the toes curling like a roller blind. There are also storylines set up that don’t pay off, not least in the shape of Gambon who seems almost criminally underused. But you get to hear Maggie Smith in handbag mode say “fuck off”, which is always funny. And Pauline Collins, as a twittery airhead, again shows her brilliance at stitching together a film with a performance. This isn’t the film you’d have expected from Hoffman, maybe, and it isn’t even remotely cool to like it. But it is a rather lovely film, an exercise in British understatement from the guy who once dressed up as Tootsie.
- The cast includes real retired musicians and singers, who all perform
- Hoffman’s proper directorial debut
- A charming portrait of the life artistic and how it wrecks a normal decent life
- So many good performances – Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Trevor Peacock, David Ryall
Quartet – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014