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A chorus of elderly people singing “Let’s Talk About Sex” or dressed as metalheads while performing “Ace of Spades” isn’t all that funny. (Condescending, yes. Feel-good, no.) But that’s what’s offered as comic relief in writer-director Paul Andrew Williams’ weepie Unfinished Song.
Let’s get the script’s catalyst out of the way: The cancer-stricken Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), cheerful wife of cranky Arthur (Terence Stamp), dies. But she spends her last days joyfully warbling in a seniors’ singing group, led by the equally cheerful (and musically adventurous) Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Arthur, for some unexplained reason, hates her hobby, and does nothing but snap and scowl when he takes her to practice. One day when Marion’s too sick to make it, they come to her home and serenade her, only to have Arthur yell at them and prevent his dying wife from saying hello. It’s bizarre.
Arthur does show moments of tenderness toward Marion, but mostly he’s a jerk, an attitude that also extends to his grown son (Christopher Eccleston). After Marion’s death, he tells his only child he doesn’t think they should be in contact anymore. Again, there’s no clear motivation behind his actions beyond “the screenplay says so.”And the “transformation” that follows is equally unbelievable and not terribly fleshed out.
To be fair, it’s difficult to strike the right tone in a story about death, mourning, and learning to live a new life without nose-diving into bathos. (In 2011, Beginners pulled it off beautifully.) Unfinished Song feels unsure of itself from start to finish, including a montage during which playful/borderline wacky music accompanies Marion giving Arthur the silent treatment. The group’s concern when Marion deteriorates feels true, as does an anguishing moment when we hear Arthur wailing after she dies. But it’s not enough.
Near the beginning of the film, Elizabeth provides a voiceover that reveals a little bit about her background and her belief that “everything happens for a reason”—-and after the credits roll, it seems just as pointless. She and Arthur do strike up a sorta-friendship, but it seems inconsequential and not exactly crucial to either character’s development. The final chapters, too, are just plain eye-rolling. If there’s a positive, it’s that Redgrave is delightful to watch, her Marion a smiling, optimistic inspiration even when she knows the end is near. Stamp’s Arthur, however, is too one-dimensional for the actor’s presence to impress. You may get sad during Unfinished Song, but mostly from thinking that both titans deserve better material.