Sunday, 21 October 2012

Billy Connolly: 'Quartet' BFI premiere and review

Dustin Hoffman's 'Quartet' cast draws laughs at London appearance

Comedian Billy Connolly and Downton Abbey star Maggie Smith entertained the crowd with jokes and banter here Monday as they answered questions about their roles in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut Quartet ahead of the film's red carpet gala screening Monday evening. The screening was part  of the BFI London Film Festival.

Hoffman's film, based on a stage play by Ronald Harwood that the playwright himself adapted for the screen, details the story of a group of retired opera singers in a retirement home whose annual concert to celebrate composer Giuseppe Verdi's birthday is disrupted by the arrival of an eternal diva played by Smith and the former wife of one of the residents.

Smith, whose turn as the sharp-tongued countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey has been a TV ratings hit in the U.K. and the U.S. alike, was at one point asked if she knew that a sandwich seller with an outlet outside the Venice Film Festival's main theater had named a sandwich after her. "Is it ham?" she asked in response - a reference to an unskilled actor who overacts.

Connolly, whose stand-up comedy routines led Hoffman to cast him in his directorial debut, was up and running with humor from his  first question.

Asked how Hoffman was as a director, fellow ensemble cast member Pauline Collins described him as a "dynamo and a darling," mostly because "it was clear he understood actors." Connolly's immediate response was that he'd forgotten the question in a playful reference to the themes of old age in the film. "A nightmare – tantrums, long silences, inappropriate touching," Connolly then said, before adding that Hoffman actually  "was excellent."

Hoffman jumped in to ensure that Connolly meant the director had provided "excellent touching."
When asked if she felt she started being asked to play "ageing women" a little early on in her career and whether she minded or not, Smith said she was "glad to get any work" and the fact "they're all 90 is neither here nor there."

Hoffman added that he knew Smith was getting offers of other kinds of film work all the time, noting she'd only last year turned down My Week With Marilyn.

Fellow ensemble cast members Tom Courtenay and relative youngster Sheridan Smith at 32 also joined in the fun.
Courtenay chimed in with an impression of Hoffman as a director and the points during the shoot when he knew the debutant helmer was happy. "Gorgeous, gorgeous take, that's in the movie," Courtenay said Hoffman would bellow.

But one question drew incredulity from Connolly when he was asked if he felt more likely to be inappropriate as he got older.

"Are you kidding me on"?, Connolly said in his Scottish drawl. "I've been accused of being inappropriate from day one. I have pretty much said exactly as I please all my life. I wasn't just pretending to be old."

On a more serious note, the cast members were asked if they thought that a fresh genre of movie had been invented on the back of the critical and boxoffice success of movies featuring older casts, such as The Best Exotic Marigold HotelThe King's Speech as well as TV shows, such as Downton.

"I think it is because a lot of grown-ups would like films [made] for grown-ups about grown-ups. I can only hope that's correct," Smith said.

Hoffman and company also revealed that much of the dialogue in the film came from the Oscar-winning actor making his cast feel free to improvise. "It was openly encouraged and a very good idea," Connolly said before adding a complaint that his best ad lib was left on the cutting room floor.

Hoffman explained that when they were shooting, Connolly and Courtenay's characters were meant to be watching a deer on the edge of the forest in a highly-charged emotional scene.

Being "low-budget filmmaking," Hoffman said it ended up that the separate CGI deer scene just didn't sit right with the other film footage. Connolly's improv quip for the scene was: "Do you think he knows how delicious he is."

The film will be released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Co., which is giving it an Academy-qualifying run on Dec. 28.
Source: Hollywood Reporter

'Quartet' review - BFI London Film Festival 2012 
Director: Dustin Hoffman; Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood; Starring: Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay, Pauline Collins, Sheridan Smith, Michael Gambon; Running time: 90 mins; Certificate: TBC Dustin Hoffman had a trial run behind the camera way back in 1978 for pet project Straight Time, but ended up as an uncredited director for the hard-hitting crime drama. Quartet, his first proper stab as a filmmaker, is an altogether more sedate and cosy affair.

It takes place at Beecham house, a retirement home for musicians that counts the likes of Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins among its residents. Each year the house holds a concert to celebrate composer Giuseppe Verdi's birthday, but their latest money-spinning event is thrown into jeopardy when Reg's (Courtenay) ex-wife Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) comes to live at Beecham.

Still nursing a broken heart, Reg can't bear to face Jean, and it takes some cajoling from Wilf and Cissy - all part of a classic Rigoletto recording back in the day - to mend old wounds in the group. They're also not helped by Jean's resistance to performing - she was a superstar in her youth and believes she'll tarnish that memory by singing now.

Quartet has a warmth and charm that'll likely make it a firm hit with the same crowd that turned out for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Both films were marked by flinty, terse performances by Maggie Smith, with her characters (both needing hip replacements!) gradually warming over time. Like Marigold, Quartet tackles ideas of ageing without pushing the story into too dark a direction.

The film's greatest strength lies in the excellent performances from the cast. Connolly provides much-needed light relief as ladies' man Wilf, who describes himself to the in-house doctor (Sheridan Smith) as like "vintage wine and seasoned wood". The likes of Michael Gambon and Andrew Sachs also leave an impression in their fleeting roles.

Ronald Harwood's script, based on his own stage play, occasionally betrays its theatrical roots with some dense dialogue and reliance on the same locations, but his story of the elderly finding a way to relive their glory days is sure to cement this as a blue rinse favourite.
Source (with photos): Digital Spy

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