In the feel-good-with-a-tear-in-your-eye tradition of such polished, sentimental British films for grownups as Calendar Girls, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet, along comes the polished, predictable but endearing Unfinished Song, a touching and joyous movie with the rare benefit of featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp at the top of their game. It’s about facing the inevitable consequences of age with dignity and grace, but the atmosphere is so relentlessly pleasant and life-affirming, even in life’s cruel third act, that the film is never depressing or maudlin, and sometimes it even makes you laugh.
Mr. Stamp gets his juiciest role in years as Arthur, a grouchy, awkward and difficult old pensioner in the North of England who takes care of his beloved, terminally ill wife Marion (a relentlessly perky Ms. Redgrave). Arthur, who rarely finds anything to smile about, is generally annoyed by just about everything—but especially when cheerful, optimistic Marion joins a choir group for senior citizens at the local community center conducted by warm, freckle-faced music teacher Elizabeth (talented Gemma Arterton). A far cry from old folks at church picnics singing “Greensleeves,” this choir is giving retirement new vigor, trying out an expansive repertoire that includes rock, rap and hip-hop tunes like Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby.” Arthur listens in disgust, and at first I didn’t blame him. Vanessa Redgrave, in a knit cap to cover the tragic results of chemotherapy, singing Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” out of tune, in a key that hasn’t been invented yet, is a new definition of agony. When her condition worsens and the entire choir turns up on the lawn at the crack of dawn singing Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” Arthur kicks them off the property in a rage, and I was siding with him all the way.
But singing has a restorative effect on Marion that is hard to ignore. When the choir enters a national singing competition, she rehearses and prepares to travel with the others, disregarding Arthur’s concern that she lacks the physical stamina to participate, but fate has other plans. Ridiculous, frivolous, a waste of time—all of Arthur’s objections to Marion’s singing lessons when she had only a few months to live force him, after her death, to rethink his position. Struggling to cope with loneliness, loss and anger, he finds hope in music. Will he accept the choral director’s invitation to take his wife’s place in the choir, adjust to speed-metal dissonance like Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” adapt to a new social environment that might save his life, learn something about growing old with courage and at the same time find a way to reunite with the estranged son (Christopher Eccleston) who is the only family he has left? Just guess.
The resolutions to his bitterness are hardly fresh, and some of the scenes—such as the one in which choir mistress Elizabeth arrives unexpectedly in the middle of the night and pours out her troubles to a man old enough to be her father—are clumsy and unconvincing. In the end, director Paul Andrew Williams fails to resist sentimentality, but classy acting and distinguished production values never sink to the level of soap opera. Unfinished Song moves too slowly for its own good (mourning is doubly taxing in a country where it’s always raining), but it’s a great showcase for Terence Stamp. His transitions are inspired. When resistance gives way to resignation, the surrender in his eyes tells volumes about what’s going on in his heart. The movie wraps you tenderly in a cashmere blanket. And I liked the message that what makes a song beautiful is not always the quality of the voice singing it but the heart and soul behind it.
Written by Paul Andrew Williams
Directed by Paul Andrew Williams
Starring Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccleston, Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave
Running time: 93 mins.