Raising His Voice For Her
It takes a while to warm up to Arthur in Brit writer and director Paul Andrew Williams’ Unfinished Song. He’s an old curmudgeon, hard-edged and cynical, and a “puffed-up pigeon” as his wife calls him. His Grinch-like tendencies cause him to utter quips like, “bugger off” and “you know how I feel about enjoying things.” Arthur is embodied by Terence Stamp whose callousness is never quite explained or given origin, but still manages to nudge our sympathies. As with most brutish old men, you must work to find his heart.
Arthur’s better half, which is actually slowly dying, is Marion, played by Vanessa Redgrave. She’s involved with a local choir group for senior citizens called the OAPz and is the devoted core and soul of the ensemble. They’re led by a perky music teacher Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) who selects eclectic pop and rock hits like “Let’s talk about sex” and “Ace of Spades” for their rehearsals. The idea comes from the lovely documentary Young@Heart, but this version merely highlights the laughable obscurities of watching old people perform, and according to Arthur, embarrass themselves on stage.
Elizabeth teaches a music class to elementary students during the day, splitting lessons between her two age levels whose musical literacy rests conveniently on similar ground. Arthur scoffs at their pop songs whenever he drops off Marion for practice, but like most of these stories go, he starts to come around. Prodding him along is Marion who learns she only has a few months to live suffering from cancer. The couple channels the iconic dynamic championed by Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond as Redgrave caringly calms Stamp’s evergreen grimace.
He finds a mutual nurturing with Elizabeth, who relays her vague personal problems to him in exchange for his grieving, worn close to the sleeve. Before Marion’s passing, Elizabeth entered the choir into a competition to spur on Marion’s motivation and keep her preoccupied in the moment. Now a lonely Arthur must decide if he wants to join this group of fragile vocalists and carry on Marion’s singing spirit in time for the show.
Williams’ previous films don’t gravitate toward the overly sensitive, but even in this case, it might be wrong to classify Unfinished Song in the genre of films like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Quartet, which cater to the elite lifestyles of retirement. This film nestles into its English blue-collar neighborhood much like this year’s Scottish The Angel’s Share or 2011’s Irish comedy The Guard, visually enhanced by its tight framing of indoor spaces and cozy, crunched row-home exteriors. Arthur’s son James (Christopher Eccleston) works humbly as a mechanic and as a single dad with his daughter Jennfier (Orla Hill), living in an indistinct apartment complex. British film right now may be defined by its biopics and lavish settings, but more recently, by its equally textured working-class people and towns.
Unfinished Song, originally titled Song for Marion, also inhabits that typically British film middle ground of comedy and tears. The colorful choir is played for jokes, but the disparate relationship between Arthur and his middle-aged son adds an unsettling weight, especially in their underdeveloped dissonance. It, like Elizabeth’s cheesy boy trouble, feels more like an emotional set piece to effectively garner its intended response.
Can Arthur change? The answer may not surprise you, but it will surely get to you.