British cinema and Hollywood –for the two are entwined– have discovered the purchasing power of the aging Baby Boomer population. But while in jolly old England the elderly go out on exotic trips to India to find love or themselves (“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) or put on an opera to raise funds for their musicians-only retirement home (Dustin Hoffman’s delightful directorial debut “Quartet”), in the United States they get together to blow stuff and people up real good (“Red” and its upcoming sequel, “The Expendables” and its respective sequels).
“Unfinished Song” is the latest entry to the growing list of Baby Boomer-friendly films. Written and directed with a heavy hand by Paul Andrew Williams, “Unfinished Song” (originally titled “Song for Marion”) is deliberately manipulative and predictable, its only redeeming aspect the joyful, dignified performances of its leads Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave.
Partly inspired by the equally saccharine documentary “Young @ Heart” (about a New England choir of retirees that perform rock anthems in their own way), “Unfinished Song” pairs Stamp and Redgrave as opposites-attract British couple Arthur and Marion. He is a curmudgeonly soul who sees no value in his wife’s participation in a local elderly choir directed by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). As soon as you see Marion sitting on a wheelchair, head covered by a handkerchief, you know she’s suffering from cancer and that at some point in the movie it will be declared terminal by her doctors. And so it happens: she faints during rehearsal, is taken to a hospital and is told by her doctor to go home and have as much chips and ice cream as she wants since she only has weeks to live.
Marion only wants one thing: to go back to the choir and sing. Despite Arthur’s grumpy protestations –he’s being overprotective and really wants to spend as much time with her as possible– Marion returns to rehearsals as the choir prepares to participate in the auditions for a national choral competition. She performs one final song during the showcase: Cindy Lauper’s “True Colors,” which you know is about her relationship to Arthur. As you are being beaten into submission by Redgrave’s poignant performance, tears streaming down your eyes, the rational part of your brain stays two steps ahead of the game and tells you that she will soon meet the end and that the choir will, indeed, pass the audition and enter the competition.
The second half involves Arthur coming to grips with his wife’s death and, of course, eventually finding the courage to join the choir and sing. Oh, and did I mention that right after Marion’s death, he decides to shut his only son (Christopher Eccleston brilliantly doing a lot with so little), whom he has never gotten along, out of his life, even though that means he won’t be able to see his cute granddaughter, no matter how fond Arthur is of her? I am not spoiling anything by revealing that reconciliation between the two parts is inevitable and that Arthur sings his heart out with a song that equally expresses his feelings for Marion.
“Unfinished Song” is at its best when it focuses solely on its two leads. Such endearing details as Arthur placing a hot water bottle on his wife’s side of the bed while she is at the hospital just to have a facsimile of her warm body, or Redgrave’s delightfully saucy smile pay far more emotional dividends than the script’s paint-by-numbers plotting. And while Williams’ treatment of how the elderly cope with the physical decline of old age and death pales next to Michael Haneke’s more harrowing and touching “Amour,” you still feel you are in the presence of a real, breathing couple thanks to these two veteran British actors. Stamp’s craggy, weather-beaten but still handsome face and Redgrave’s cheerful performance elevate this film. I wish I could say the same for the film’s rather cartoonish elderly choir. The actors may be members of an actual choir –the OAPz– but “Unfinished Song” does them, and the elderly in general, no favors by portraying them in such a one-dimensional way no matter how game they are to have a wee bit of fun in front of the camera.