There is no excuse for this film. It’s as high concept as any superhero movie, and that concept is so superficially awful – cheerful young choir director helps grumpy old widower find happiness through the power of song – it should have been killed in the cradle. It should not be allowed. In no possible universe should it be good. And yet it is far more than just good. It is beautiful, and powerful, and deeply moving. Those qualities can be attributed to heartbreaking and delicate performances by Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave as Arthur and Marion, old marrieds doing all they can to face Marion’s impending death with dignity – and, in Marion’s case, as much joy as she can find in her last days. Stamp and Redgrave are bolstered by the solid work of Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth, the aforementioned cheerful young choir director, and Christopher Eccleston as James, the son with whom Arthur has a complex relationship. Briefly, Marion is in a (suspiciously good) community choir directed by Elizabeth and entered into a local competition, and as Marion becomes sicker, Arthur becomes more involved in the choir, leading Elizabeth to take a (TOTALLY PLATONIC THANK YOU JESUS) interest in his life.
I should be honest and tell you that Unfinished Song doesn’t so much push my buttons as lean on them with all its might. I’m a sucker for long-time love stories like that between Arthur and Marion – the final scene of Shall We Dance?, in which long-married couple Richard Gere and Susan Sarandon reconcile in the most ridiculously romantic way I have ever seen, has never not once left me dry-eyed, in fact let’s watch it right now and you can make fun of me:
Swear to God, I was straight bawling when I saw that in theaters at age 17. I fancied myself something of an emotionally tough chick, I didn’t know what had hit me. ANYWAY. So I’m a sucker for long-time love stories, always have been – they all make me cry – and I’m a sucker for parent-child drama, which is folded into the fabric of Unfinished Song, and on top of all that, it’s about the power of music to move people. And while that doesn’t always make me cry, it doesn’t not make me cry. I definitely cried a bunch when I saw 20 Feet From Stardom. All of this is to say that I am shall we say more than average-ly susceptible to picking up what Unfinished Song is putting down.
But it’s not just my own vulnerabilities that made me love this film. It’s how desperately in love Arthur is, how endlessly dedicated to Marion, and how broken he is when she dies. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you Marion dies; she’s terminally ill from the outset.) Arthur could have been a caricature of a grumpy old man, but instead he’s painfully real, his struggles, victories and failures written across Stamp’s craggy and not unhandsome face. Redgrave as Marion is, frankly, luminous, an open-hearted counterpart to Arthur’s prickliness and near-misanthropy. And pleasingly, both Redgrave and Stamp are old. They look their distinguished ages, 77 and 75 respectively, and perform like people with seven decades of experience guiding them. They give master classes in subtlety, in keeping your most potent weapons hidden for maximal impact. Delightful too is the chemistry between Arterton and Stamp, fumbling towards a cross-generational friendship with benefit to them both.
Narratively, Unfinished Song doesn’t quite hang together. The small twist at the end is not only unnecessary, but nonsensical. Elizabeth’s emotional arc is not particularly clear, and her narration beginning and ending the film is totally unnecessary. The “complication” of Arthur and James’ relationship is never clear, presumably resting on a history of which the audience is never made aware, and resulting in a series of interactions that don’t create a particularly coherent dynamic. But ultimately, none of this matters. Arthur’s emotional journey is the film’s actual narrative, and it is rock solid and enormously compelling.