Film Review: Unfinished SongUnlike<i> <a href="http://www.filmjournal.com/filmjournal/content_display/esearch/e3i723cf863c1c257327e8bd2b195096d40">The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel</a></i>—last year’s star-packed, British-made fairytale for older folks—<i>Unfinished S
Writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, who’s known for making edgy movies in the horror and crime genre, says his grandparents’ relationship was the inspiration for the elderly couple depicted in Unfinished Song. Well, God bless them, and their grandson too, for their role in this wish-fulfillment fantasy that tries, at least, to turn death and old-age bitterness into something—well, something to sing about.
The opposites-attract quality of the marriage between Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) and Arthur (Terence Stamp) is established right away. She’s a giddy, life-affirming optimist—even though she’s dying of a brain tumor—and he’s an unrepentant grump and curmudgeon. And they have lived quite happily this way, thank you very much, for 50 years.
Marion’s cheerfulness finds the perfect outlet in a community choral group called The Old Age Pensioners, led by the young choir director, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), who plans to enter OAPz (as the group is billed) in a national choral competition. But they won’t be singing the expected oldies but goodies, no indeed; Elizabeth convinces the old folks they can bring home a trophy by belting out a geriatric version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex!” Embarrassing? Demeaning? Patronizing? Well, Arthur certainly thinks so, and he gets even more testy later on, when the choir comes calling on his wife—while she’s having a bad day—to stand outside their bedroom window singing “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” Really, who can blame him?
Arthur begins to soften, however, when his wife is picked to perform a solo. He’s in the audience for a rehearsal, and when Marion bravely belts out Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” (“I see your true colors shining through…”), she sings directly to him. By the end of the movie, Marion is no longer alive and Arthur has himself become a member of the chorus (aw, c’mon, you knew that would happen, right?), and he returns his wife’s heartfelt, heartbreaking sentiment by singing, solo, Billy Joel’s “Goodnight My Angel.”
In the narrative spaces between these two tear-jerking incidents, Marion and Arthur do have some lovely and honest scenes together, showing the depth and tenderness of a long and truly loving relationship. Also, the estrangement between Arthur and his son James (Christopher Eccleston) is nicely played and rings true. Which makes the unrealistic role of Elizabeth all the more jarring; it’s simply impossible to believe that a young woman as beautiful, smart and appealing as Gemma Arterton would be a friendless, dateless schoolteacher who devotes all her spare time to a bunch of la-la-la-ing old folks—or that she’d unselfconsciously encourage them to shed their hard-won dignity by standing on a stage shaking their booties like teenagers in heat.
Despite its cringe-worthy moments, Unfinished Song can claim something wonderful that no other movie, old or new, has ever had: the pairing of Redgrave and Stamp, two of the most versatile and revered actors in 20th-century cinema. Even in this small film, no matter what these acting giants do, our eyes are riveted on them. To think that great dramatic actors like these two—both in their mid-70s and mostly showing it—have the guts to portray characters this schmaltzy, to put themselves out there like this, to stand proudly alone and sing for the camera in their sweet but untrained voices—well, if that doesn’t induce a tear or two, nothing else will.