Some movies can coast on sheer star power alone. Give a couple of veteran actors a decent script, and sometimes they can produce a finished product that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Unfinished Song, written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, is just such a film. At times it can be a little trite, a bit too “cutesy”, but by the time the credits roll, this tale of life, aging, and dying will win you over.
Terence Stamp plays Arthur, a typical movie curmudgeon who isn’t exactly living it up during his Golden Years. He goes out with the guys once a week and tends to his wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Refusing to sit idly by and wait for death to claim her, Marion has joined a choir of elderly singers who are preparing to audition for a regional competition.
Arthur is less than thrilled by this development. He professes that the rehearsals will tire her out too much and encourages her to rest instead. His pleas fall on deaf ears, and Marion comes to life each day as she sings silly rock and roll songs with a group of fellow pensioners. However, the audience begins to realize that Arthur isn’t a killjoy, trying to dissuade his wife from enjoying in her final days. He harbors the unspoken belief that the singing competition will be his mate’s swan song, both figuratively and literally. And if he can just keep her to himself, away from the outside world, maybe she won’t ever leave him.
Arthur is emotionally estranged from his son, James (Christopher Eccleston), and it’s Marion’s wish that the two will become closer. Although she never says it, she knows that when she’s gone James will be all that Arthur has left.
Much of what ensues is predictable, but the performances of Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave make Unfinished Song a satisfying trip to the theater. There are no flowery speeches, no dramatic deathbed scenes. Arthur and Marion have shared a lifelong love of one another that is coming to its natural end. When Arthur suggests that Marion have a seat and rest a minute, she says, “I like sitting on the sofa with you”, and the look they exchange conveys more than any dialogue ever could. They’ve had their time together, and the days are drawing shorter.
The film is certainly not all “doom and gloom”. Unfinished Song has a nice streak of humor running through it, and the overall tone of the movie is life-affirming, not sad. At times the antics of the elderly choir can get a bit too rom-com cute, but then a particularly touching moment between Arthur and Marion will anchor the film once again. There’s a wonderful, but brief, scene where Arthur sits at Marion’s bedside while James plays with his daughter in the kitchen. All four of them appear within the framing of the shot. A single, thin wall separates the beginnings of life from its end.
Our society has a way of treating its elderly like they’re cute little kids, infantilizing people who have decades of wisdom to impart. Many times films about growing old manage to do the very same thing. They are the cinematic equivalent of a pinch on the cheek and a patronizing pat on the head. Thankfully, Unfinished Song does not fall into that category. It pays tribute to the final stages of life and honors the journey that Arthur and Marion took to get there. The point is simple, but worth experiencing.
8 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.