Swan 'Song'

Unfinished Song
(UK, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams
Starring: Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton, Christopher Eccelston, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Terence Stamp in Unfinished Song
Photo Credit: Nick Wall. Courtesy of eOne Films
“Chips and ice cream,” the doctor prescribes, as she tells a dying Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) to go home and indulge in her greatest pleasures. What Marion loves, however, is singing. Marion is part of a troupe dubbed the OAPz (Old Age Pensionerz) and she sings tunes under the direction of a bubbly young music teacher named Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Marion’s husband, Arthur (Terence Stamp), an English curmudgeon if the cinema ever saw one, detests the group that Marion loves. Now that it’s come time to say, “’til death do us part” (this fact doesn’t spoil anything), Arthur needs something to fill the silence of his empty house and decides to honour Marion by singing the next refrain.

Unfinished Song, which closed last year’s Toronto International Film Festival under the superior title Song for Marion, is a touching tearjerker and a cute little tale of undying love. It’s an awfully expository affair, as the chunk of plot summary above might indicate, but Unfinished Song is a warm, affectionate crowd pleaser that’s sure to delight. Audiences young and old should enjoy this little ditty, which plays like The Full Monty meets Quartet, as it’s ripe with geriatric gags and a nice little message that one is never too old to find one’s voice. The croaky rehearsals filled with horny seniors might not let Unfinished Song age gracefully, but it’s a sweet and genuinely sentimental choice for a matinee.

Arthur’s voice is an odd fit for the selection of sexy songs that Elizabeth has prepared for the OAPz. One might expect that a chorus of gramps and grannies would be singing Celine Dion. (It should be noted that Dion supplies a tune for the closing credits.) Elizabeth instead has the old folks sing “Crazy” in Kanye West shutter shades or perform their signature tune “Let’s Talk About Sex” as they bump, grind, and throw out their backs. The incongruous song choices have considerable mileage as the film’s running gag. The finale is a gas even after ten rehearsals. If the jokes about cute old people feel slightly milquetoast against the drizzly English setting, they nevertheless bring to life a sombre premise about death.

Unfinished Song, however, hits two high notes with a pair of swan songs by Marion and Arthur. Each member of the elderly couple sings a tune during climactic performances for the OAPz, with Redgrave getting the centrepiece of the film as Marion does her final number during the group’s audition and with Stamp reprising Marion’s spirit as Arthur closes the group’s performance in the climactic competition. The two songs, which bookend a strong piece of cinema after an overdrawn overture, are touching showpieces for each actor. Redgrave’s performance of “True Colours,” sung from Marion to Arthur as a nod for their years of marriage, is an unexpectedly moving performance in what is, until then, a fairly broad and middlebrow dramedy. Unfinished Song is a very fine moment for Redgrave as her gravelly vocals afford Marion a touching and naked performance as she lives out her final wishes for all to see. It’s only with Marion’s ballad does Unfinished Song move into the material it touches opening in its opening numbers.

Once Redgrave exits the film, Stamp makes ample opportunity to use his gruff, weathered presence and take the OAPz’ shtick as a kind of glee club slash support group. Trading barbs with Elizabeth, the stodgy Arthur needs much coaxing to carry Marion’s tune. Stamp and Redgrave’s strong performances are well-matched by the spiritedness of Arterton, who plays choirmaster to the Old Age Pensionerz and helps draw out Arthur’s sweet side once Marion passes. (Arterton can also be seen in the current release Byzantium.)

Stamp, who actually has decent vocals, matches Redgrave’s number by closing the film with a simple and soulful tribute to Marion by singing Billy Joel mostly a capella. The song, like Marion’s performance, comes on the heels of a silly number by the OAPz, but writer/director Paul Andrew Williams and the cast handle the shifts in tone rather well. The moment must be enjoyed as a continuation of Marion’s song, for, as Elizabeth notes in voiceover, the greatest vocals are those seasoned by experience. The song rings with Arthur’s sense of loss as the grumpy old man bares himself before the crowd. It’s a swan song, for sure.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Unfinished Song screened in Ottawa at TheByTowne.
It screens at The Mayfair beginning August 23rd.