Quartet (1948) ****

One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to Quartet is that watching it feels somewhat akin to reading four Somerset Maugham short stories.

And so it should, you snort derisively, because, of course, an adaptation of four Maugham stories is exactly what it is. But films that announce themselves as adaptations of a specific author can rarely be relied upon to adhere with any great respect even to the letter of the originals: capturing their spirit is almost always beyond them. Look at Edgar Allan Poe: he must have been given the possessive name check in dozens, perhaps hundreds of movies, some of them terrible, many good and a few of them certain masterpieces. But how many have any qualities reminiscent of actually reading one of his tales? I'm not sure I can think of any.
Neither should greater than average fidelity be inferred simply from the fact that Maugham felt sufficiently paternal towards this production to give it his personal imprimatur, introducing and closing the film as himself, with endearing nervousness (those fidgety fingers!) in a studio mock-up of his own study that, according to accounts, almost spooked him with its accuracy, the more so when he discovered that a paper knife he took to be his own (he fiddles with it through much of his opening address) was in fact made of papier mache. Many another author had been happy to take the money and run - often as fast as they could - from productions they knew would do their literary reputations no possible good, but, they reasoned no doubt correctly, very little harm either, while swelling their bank balances to a degree that more than compensated for the unmistakable feeling of having joined the oldest profession.
But Quartet really is the exception. There is a profound subtlety to it, a desire to convey in miniatures of gesture, dialogue and event exactly that quality of minute observation that makes Maugham's short stories among the best ever written.
Surprisingly, it is the spirit that is recreated rather more than the letter: the adaptations are not religiously unadorned, and the desire to tidy them up dramatically, particularly in terms of narrative pay-off, is more freely indulged than one might think, especially if you haven't read the stories for a while, and only becomes apparent if you then return to them. It's the capturing of their essence, as I said, that is so striking: that brittle, half-concealed iceberg psychology, where the very scarcity of surface revelation somehow makes naked the vast reserves of emotion and meaning beneath.
The four stories are each beautifully transferred, each establishing a perfect mood, never outstaying their welcome, and varying the bill only beneath the skin: there are no jarring transitions in style or feel; each episode is clearly a part of a perfectly unified whole, and yet one is light and amusing, one tragic, one quixotic, one powerfully moving. The last, 'The Colonel's Lady', feels like the best, but as much because it is a culmination, a drawing together of all the elements of the preceding three, as for its own specific virtues, striking though they are. Fascinating as every moment of this story is (concerning the effect on a staid marriage of the wife's unexpected success with a volume of racy poetry), note just how much is conveyed in the first scene, where nothing much happens at all, but in which we eavesdrop on the couple at breakfast and learn all we need to know about them as individuals and as a couple, simply by observing the bland formality that has taken the place of intimacy between them. (And how much is conveyed by such seemingly inconsequential lines of dialogue as the husband's: "You know I cannot bear to see people cutting string!")

It could be argued that the transition between stories should somehow have been handled in such a way as to allow the viewer time to digest what they have just seen before haring into the next (though I can't think how, other than with three intervals, which actually may not have been all that bad an idea), but the overall effect is hardly lessened by what can sometimes feel a little bit like being ushered around an art gallery by an over-officious guide, intent on making you see everything when what you really want to do is stand and contemplate, at your own pace. But that hardly detracts from what is plainly one of the most adult and stylish British films of its era - and rare in any age is a film so happy not to lead its audience by the hand towards its intended effects but content to let them find their own way.
Quartet is a certain triumph, but in keeping with its sources, one perversely incapable of announcing itself thus. It is also one of those rare films that becomes more interesting with repeated viewings.