"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tired Characterization and Narrative: The Dowager Countess in “Quartet”

I’m on a quest. Not of the Biblical variety, as I do not intend to take on The Screenwriter’s Bible. Nor does my aspiration fall under the treasure-hunt genre, for I am no Harrison Ford or Johnny Depp. My lofty goal is to fashion a narrative that is at once readily comprehensible and novel rather than formulaic. Whether from having lived past forty or some objective fact in an industry whose story-telling groves have become as deep as those in a well-trodden Roman road, I am instinctively drawn to break out of a rather dogmatically constraining aperture of story-telling. Simply put, the world may soon become bored with familiar storylines. The key to freedom from ennui may well be the achievement of a deep awareness of the extant contours of the modern story so often percolating out of Hollywood. In this essay, I examine Quartet, a 2012 film about four retired opera singers living in a stately yet nearly bankrupt home for retired musicians.


Maggie Smith plays Jean Horton, a singer whose fame eclipses that of the other singers in the house. This permits the character to take on the scent of a more notable character, the Dowager Countess, which Smith was playing in the popular television series, Downton Abbey (which in its fourth season began to suffer as well from recycled plot-themes). At one point in Quartet, Smith’s character says in exasperation to an on-coming house-maid in a hallway, “One way or the other, dear.” The likeness in diction and tone to the great lines that Smith delivers in Downton Abbey would not be lost on any viewers of the series. While leveraging on an actor’s more popular character may titillate an audience and thus earn some points at the box office, the very same viewers may also get the impression of tired dialogue and characterization. I take it as an article of faith that strong narrative requires its own characters, rather than those clothed with the well-worn garments of characters from other stories.

Similarly, the dramatic conflict in a story risks not being taken serious if it comes across as too formulaic. In Quartet, Tom Courtenay plays Reginald Paget, a member of the quartet who had been briefly married to the cheating Horton. His turn-about from a desire to leave the home when Horton moved occurs at break-neck speed and is woefully predictable. As formulaic as this “relationship” tension is, the denoument of the related “task” obstacle is even more predictable. The attentive viewer cannot help but realize early on that the film would largely reduce to whether Horton agrees to join the other three singers in the quartet. Incredibly, with so much riding on Horton’s resistance, the audience gets precious little payback as the film ends as the quartet’s members are being introduced on stage. 

From this case study, I wonder—je me demande—whether the element of dramatic tension in films hasn’t become too monolithic. Moreover, can the element be overdone in a narrative? In early films such as Frankenstein (1931), the dramatic tension is overcome relatively quickly once the conflict takes over the story. Today, the fighting can go on and on, as if it were an end in itself. I suspect that the “big question” in Quartet is distended in its significance in order to carry along a story that banks on Maggie Smith’s aristocratic character in Downton Abbey.  Whether in extending that narrative beyond its natural lifespan or in exporting the Dowager Countess into other narratives that themselves follow all too worn groves, the art of film and story-telling more broadly suffer. Perhaps the overriding question here is whether the conformity is artificial or in some way an actual constraint.