Viewers in search of the next Quartet or Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should beat a path to Unfinished Song — a film very much in the same key. (The fact is not lost on the Weinsteins, who have even gone with a poster in the style of those crowd-pleasers.) Yes, it’s definitely aimed at an older audience, which isn’t a bad thing in itself. It’s also shamelessly manipulative and generally predictable — charges that can be leveled against the other films I named. But the simple fact is that Unfinished Song works on nearly every level — thanks in large part to the presence of Terence Stamp and the always remarkable Vanessa Redgrave. Plus, Gemma Arteron and Christopher Eccleston are most definitely not chopped liver. The cast alone overshadows whatever shortcomings may be found in the script or writer-director Paul Andrew Williams’ essentially workmanlike direction. (I’m inclined to cut Williams some slack, since his previous films — mostly unknown in the U.S. — have been thrillers and crime dramas.)
Stamp and Redgrave play Arthur and Marion Harris, an elderly and oddly paired couple. She’s outgoing, friendly and has an active social life, thanks in part to a choral group she belongs to called the OAP’Z (Old Age Pensioners). Arthur is unsmiling, taciturn and seems to have no life at all apart from Marion — with occasional time-out to berate his hapless son, James (Christopher Eccleston), who seems incapable of pleasing Arthur. But Arthur’s insular world is about to crumble when it’s learned that the cancer Marion had been treated for has returned and there’s really nothing to be done. Arthur, of course, wants her to stay home and be nursed, but Marion insists on going on with the choral group right to the very end. Dismissing his son outright, Arthur settles in to grieve, but the choir director, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), has other ideas. I’m guessing you can take the plot from there.
The film is obviously inspired to some extent by the documentary Young@Heart (2007), which profiled an elderly choral group that performs rock songs. As such, part of the hook here is to see old folks singing Salt-N-Pepa, Billy Joel, Motorhead, the B-52s, etc. It depends on your outlook whether this is cute and condescending or amusingly pleasurable. I can see the former, but I never got the sense that the film intended condescension, and so I don’t fault it too much. Plus, in the case of Redgrave’s solo, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and Stamp’s version of Billy Joel’s “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel),” there’s no fault to find — the songs heartbreakingly express how they see each other, no matter what the outside world sees.
The true greatness (even if I’m stretching the term) of the film is that it never pretends to be anything other than what it is. It sets out to do what it does, and it does so with honest, but not treacly or over-emphatic sentimentality. There’s a difference between genuine sentiment and calculated manipulation — and this is genuine. A lot of people will say (have said) that the film is nothing but predictable hokum. Well, let them. Such curmudgeonliness will not dim this little gem’s gentle spirit, nor the glimmer of its two stars. See this picture. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and rude gestures.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas