Ah, movies about elderly British people. There has been somewhat of a groundswell of these movies over the years, with Quartet, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Ladies in Lavender and Calendar Girls. Typically, they feature Maggie Smith or Helen Mirren and show that, yes, while the Brits are thought to be stuffy, they are really crazy and fun! They also take old age by the balls by doing fun activities like posing nude or going on a wild vacay – probably with a life lesson learned along the way.
Paul Andrew Williams’s Unfinished Song is yet another film falling into this “elderly British” bracket. And like the others, it features a group of oldsters doing a wacky activity and learning life lessons. It’s a syrupy yet pleasant film. Hardly the makings of a classic – there are many uncomfortable “senior-sploitation” moments and some format issues – the film rises above with good performances from its leads.
Unfinished Song tells the tale of the curmudgeonly Arthur (Terence Stamp) and his free-spirited wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), who is suffering from terminal cancer. Despite being in her final days, Marion insists on going to her choir practice at the local community center, led by the cheery Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), a young music teacher who has no friends in town besides this group of rowdy seniors. Arthur becomes rather resentful of the choir group, as he blames them for Marion’s decreasing energy. He also thinks Elizabeth’s insistance on teaching the seniors “fun” songs like “Love Shack” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” is pretty ridiculous. But Elizabeth gets the group an audition to enter a prestigious choir competition, which they get into in part because of Marion’s moving rendition of “True Colors.”
Marion eventually does succumb to her illness, leaving Arthur feeling isolated and even more removed from his estranged son, James (Christopher Eccleston). Arthur tries to work through his grief, however, by honoring Marion’s last wish of him joining the choir group in her place. In doing so, he slowly gets inspired to open up to others.
While the film does make the point it being important to let loose and open yourself up to others, there is something rather awkward about watching senior citizens rap en masse whilst sporting giant gangsta rapper chains and backwards hats. Or tie-dye shirts and faux hippie garb. This is supposed to be “cute,” you gather, and it’s good that the characters seem to get enjoyment from this. Should being older therefore elicit an “aww factor?” When Arthur criticizes them for looking like fools, you almost agree with him, and I don’t think that you’re supposed to. In fact, you pray that legendary tough guy Stamp doesn’t eventually get into some crazy costume.
There’s also some issues with the film’s format. While it is bookended by voiceover narration by Elizabeth, the film is told for the most part through Arthur’s point of view. The juxtaposition of the POV to the voiceover is slightly jarring and feels out of place. The film would be more affecting if the more withdrawn Arthur was able to share some of his pent up thoughts through narration instead.
However, the film’s issues are somewhat eclipsed by the overall strength of its actors. Nary an actor plays the “crusty old salt” as well as Stamp. Still sexy and stylish, with piercing blue eyes and wearing artfully draped scarves, Stamp hits the nail on the head in this film as he simultaneously conveys rigidity with vulnerability. His hard exterior is really a sort of armor to protect others from seeing how utterly lost he is without his wife, and Stamp is able to tell this story with his sad eyes while he is verbally lambasting the choir group. Redgrave is equally as affecting as Marion, as she constantly radiates a sense of warmth making it quite understandable that all are drawn to her character in the film.
As Arthur and Marion’s son, Eccleston is the film’s acting MVP. He steals every scene, emoting like crazy – he both conveys great sadness and gets into vitriolic screaming matches. Every moment of his is spot-on, and you can’t help but look forward to his scenes. His standout moment occurs when Arthur unceremoniously blurts out to his character that Marion is terminal. His James is a mechanical and rather traditionally masculine character, yet he breaks down in restrained, heart-wrenching tears. His reaction is so believable for his particular character.
Sure, it’s corny at times and the seniors’ choir performances are more than a bit cringe-inducing. But Unfinished Song is an enjoyable watch. It’s not going to win any awards, but you’ll crack a smile several times throughout and appreciate the talent at hand. And that’s quite nice.
The Upside: Enjoyable performances; the overall pleasantness of it all.
The Downside: Watching senior-sploitation is still slightly uncomfortable; has some structural issue.
On the Side: It’s rumored that the “Terry and Julie” referenced in The Kinks’ song “Waterloo Sunset” are Stamp and Julie Christie.