Paul Andrew Williams’ Unfinished Song would be a welcome change of pace any time of the year. Coming at the end of a summer schedule where city destruction was almost mandatory, however, the crowd-pleaser is an especially potent tonic. In the style of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet, the British film takes a warm look at the elderly without skimping on polite humor. Also like those earlier films, death is practically a character, and when Marion Harris (Vanessa Redgrave) finds her cancer has returned, the Grim Reaper all but moves in with her grumpy husband Arthur (Terence Stamp).
Their remaining time together short, Arthur grudgingly joins in with Marion’s unorthodox pensioner choir, who comedically sing the likes of “Ace of Spades” and “Let’s Talk About Sex” under the tutelage of young volunteer Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Much good cheer is derived from these personality clashes, whose impact is especially amusing thanks to Stamp’s impressive curmudgeonly turn. The commitment of his performance, the believability of his love for Marion, and the simple pleasures of music prove an immensely winning formula and make it easy to overlook an otherwise predictable story.
While its heart is consistently in the right place, outside of the Harris’ marriage, Unfinished Song is little more than an arrangement of clichés and caricatures. Marion’s choir-mates are barely developed beyond brittle-boned, hard of hearing stereotypes, and though Elizabeth is a convincing music teacher, insight into her life is sparse. Unlucky in love, she appears drawn to the senior singers out of sheer goodness, but beyond these interests she’s a fairly flat second-biller. Mindful that a good story can overcome such minor weaknesses, however, Williams smartly utilizes the film’s core strengths, refuses to let these flaws take root, and smashes a few seemingly inevitable turns in the process.
With Arthur turning corners in spite of himself and happiness seeping into each character’s life, the film has the dangerous potential of becoming a literal singing of “Kumbaya.” One especially glaring bit of cheesy movie magic involves what appears to be an assured union of two supporting characters whose respective needs and situations make them a match in rom-com heaven. A lesser film would surely have gone that route, but to Williams’ credit he abstains from such conventionality, going so far as to prevent the pair from speaking with one another. Instead, he keeps the focus on Arthur and fortifies the story’s heartfelt emotion with a pair of touching solos guaranteed to at least make one consider tearing up. For these highlights and the fun along the way, his film earns a place beside its contemporary Retired Anglo peers and may very well be the best of the lot.
Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and rude gestures.
Unfinished Song is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.