This little British film is one of the very few movies actually aimed at older audiences. Most of the actors are older, because all the action takes place in a nursing home, or more specifically, a retirement center for retired professional musicians.
The swanky estate and the luscious landscaping and the beautiful, stately grounds represent perhaps everyone’s fantasy of what refined retirement living would be like. The staff is young and attentive and oh-so-polite, even when fending off untoward comments or unsolicited malapropisms. The residents are extraordinarily talented, not only in singing but also in playing instruments, piano and strings and trumpet and clarinet. At the end, in the credits, we not only get to see the incredible array of real talent assembled, but also the photographs of them when they were younger, and in the prime of their performance careers.
Ah, yes, performing. That’s sort of the whole plot, that in addition to random rehearsing throughout the day, everyone is gearing up for the great annual Verdi tribute, climaxed by the “La Boheme” quartet. Alas, one of the usual participants has suddenly taken ill – something that happens with distressing regularity around there. But then a famous former opera singer (Maggie Smith) suddenly is the newest resident, and the program appears saved. Until she makes it clear that she will have no part in it.
Alas, it seems that once, long ago, she had a brief first marriage with one of the leading men there, and he has never forgiven her, nor ever gotten over it. He never remarried. She, on the other hand, married twice more, but none very happily. She was always married to her career, and that took precedence over raising a family. In fact, that’s the case with most. There aren’t many young visitors – grown children or young grandchildren – and the ones that do come are apparently expected to give concerts as well. We’ll tolerate youthful musical error, you see, because we all remember how it’s supposed to be played.
Those of us who are getting older will find some of the dynamics here all too familiar. None of us are as energetic as we used to be. Time has ravaged us all. Sometimes we don’t even resemble our youthful selves any more. Other times we don’t seem to be able to prevent ourselves from degenerating into sad self-caricatures. Yes, we’re forgetful. And don’t forget crochety. We cherish our grudges even when we have forgotten why. And those of us who were musicians, even if rank amateurs, can also lay claim to “temperamental.”
But in the end, we can choose to deal with what life deals to us graciously, or we can be in a snit about it all the time, and when we see others doing that, well, it just isn’t very appealing to witness. Yes, some of us are going to have difficulty moving, and others of us have problems with our balance, and though we all have trouble remembering, some of us are mentally slipping faster than others. Yes, of course, some of the past is more vivid than the present, because we were young and vivacious then, and did memorable things, and now, well, sometimes the days seem to run together because they’re all so similar. Which is why the benefit concert is so important. Yes, sure the climactic quartet is heard from a distance, but most of us would prefer to be seen from a distance, anyway (and bad lighting helps, too). Better than lip-synching, right?
Yes, there’s no fool like an old fool. And we’ll prove it to you. Right after we’ve enjoyed being irascible and recalcitrant.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.