There is a certain strain of mid-budgeted British comedy — films like “Calendar Girls,” “Made In Dagenham,” “Greenfingers,” “The Full Monty” etc. — that generally tends to find an audience on both sides of the ocean, makes a modest profit, and then lands on specialty cable where it lives on in reruns forever. They all have the easily recognizable stock characters, follow a familiar arc, and culminate in manufactured emotion designed to make you feel good. And while it’s hard to fault a film for being exactly what it sets out to be and nothing more, there is something almost offensive about how inoffensive the template guiding “Unfinished Song” is.
Terence Stamp stars as Arthur, who is grumpy and irascible for no discernible reason other than he is Old. He’s improbably married to the very sweet Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), who loves him rough edges and all, but is Dying From Cancer. However, the one ray of sunshine in her life, other than her granddaughter, is singing with the rest of the elderly folks at the community center in a choir run by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), a Very Caring Volunteer. “You know how I feel about enjoying things,” Arthur deadpans to his Estranged Son (Christopher Eccleston), and it won’t take long for you to figure out where this story goes, and how the cranky old man earns some redemption and brings his family together.
There is nothing wrong with familiar story or narrative archetype if it’s done well, but the film’s wafer-thin characterizations and structural problems make it difficult to invest in. For starters, “Unfinished Song” arguably has its highest emotional peak not at the end during the inevitable Big Moment, but about halfway through the film when Marion and her choir perform in public for the first time. Not only is the gig doubling for as an audition for a singing competition, but the dying Marion gets a big solo too. It will be handkerchief moment for the easily moved, but as the second half of the film zeroes in on the disagreeable Arthur, it’s hard to feel the same easy sympathy for him as it is for Marion. His battle to essentially be less of an asshole is far less compelling than a dying woman getting her one last shot to do something she loves.
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And it also doesn’t help that, Arthur and Marion aside, the rest of the stock of characters are essentially afterthoughts. We’re supposed to believe that the very lovely Elizabeth — who spends an increasingly unbelievable amount of time meddling in Arthur’s affairs — has trouble finding friends her age or holding on to a boyfriend (a minor subplot that really never goes anywhere). We’d wager someone looking like Gemma Arterton would be considered a catch in a small, working class town. But it’s the gallery of Old People who get it the worst, with the film infantilizing them as laughs are attempted to be wrung out of situations that find them dressing up in hip-hop clothes, making heavy metal faces, dancing the robot or singing “Let’s Talk About Sex.” The brand of comedy in “Song For Marion” comes from believes that anything an elderly person does that isn’t knitting or sitting in a rocking chair is kooky and hilarious.
Watching the film, one can’t help but think of the hit documentary from a few years back “Young@Heart” (which also has a feature film version in development). That movie tracked a group of real life elderly singers, and it contains a lot more pathos and humor precisely because it presented its subjects as complex individuals. Comparatively simplistic and somewhat lazy, “Unfinished Song” presents one-dimensional characters in a thoroughly predictable story that aspires to be little more than easily digestible.
Making his name with the much grittier “London To Brighton” a few years back, a film which was followed by genre flicks “The Cottage” and “Cherry Tree Lane,” writer/director Paul Andrew Williams takes a much less interesting turn with this picture. A big broad arrow aiming at the bullseye of the mainstream, “Unfinished Song” hits its target, but whether that relatively low bar deserves to celebrated is up for debate. [C]
This is an edited reprint of our review from the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.