Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Chippy, chirpy comedian steals the show

BILLY CONNOLLY played a live stand-up show at the Apollo in Hammersmith a couple of years ago and I was

BILLY CONNOLLY played a live stand-up show at the Apollo in Hammersmith a couple of years ago and I was lucky enough to bag a couple of seats.

He is even more formidable in the flesh than he is on screen — a mad, bad, foul-mouthed, straggle-haired Glaswegian who makes you laugh just by looking at him; a seasoned old pro of a comedian who cackles at his own jokes and gets away with it.

In Quartet (12A) it has been said that he’s just playing himself, but I disagree. His character, Wilf, is a genteel old rogue who’s just about as far removed from the real, outraged, working-class warrior as you can get. And it is he who saves this film from being a bit of a yawn.

The action is set in Beecham House, an enormous country pile that now serves as a home for retired musicians and opera singers.

Every year, to celebrate the birthday of Verdi, the residents put on a show, and this year they must redouble their efforts as the home is in danger of closing down due to lack of funds.

Cue the arrival of international opera diva Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) who swishes in with 10 tons of luggage in leather trunks and enough haughty attitude to make even the doughtiest of old men tremble.

She is the former wife of Reggie (Tom Courtenay), who is outraged that he now has to share his home with the woman who broke his heart many years ago. As well as stirring up old feelings of hurt and bitterness, Jean also manages to upset all the other residents by refusing to sing at the gala night.

Quartet is Dustin Hoffman’s first outing as a director, and you can’t really fault his expertise. He has a brilliant eye. Every scene is beautifully shot, with ancient old duffers warbling away in practice rooms and well-preserved ladies sitting in elegant poses at the piano.

The script is pretty good, and there’s a good smattering of jokes, though they provoke gentle titters rather than full belly laughs.

Like last year’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel this film serves up a smorgasbord of the best of British character actors, and pokes delicate fun at the foibles of old age — the creaking joints and weak bladder and dwindling memory.

Pauline Collins plays Cissy, the gentle old lady who is gradually succumbing to dementia, and she plays it very well.

At this point it is worth mentioning that most of us in the Regal auditorium on Monday night belong to the 50 plus club, and have grown up with Collins. We remember her as the pretty little thing in Upstairs Downstairs back in the Seventies and as a feisty, middle-aged go-getter in Shirley Valentine in the Eighties, so it is a shocking reminder of our own mortality to see her playing a sweet and forgetful old lady. But this film has been made with the grey pound in mind and in this mission, it cannot fail to please.

Smith plays her now typecast grande dame to a T, Courtenay his usual gentle soul with a touch of earnestness, and Michael Gambon puts in a fine performance as the ultimate luvvie. Nevertheless, there is little to challenge the grey matter. The plot is predictable and there are not enough original laughs to make this a truly memorable movie.

Thank goodness, then, for Connolly. He plays his role to perfection. Unlike his stand-up comedy routines, which show him to be edgy, angry and politically-motivated almost to the point of irrationality, in this role he reveals his not inconsiderable acting skills as the charming old rebel who is surely the life and soul of every care home up and down the country.

He is the lovable old roué who can’t keep his eyes (or hands) off the females. True to say, Connolly hasn’t exactly taxed himself accent-wise, and he still laughs at his own jokes, but you just can’t help laughing along with him.

If all you want is a few laughs and some great acting you will enjoy this film.

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