In the hands of a less-luminous cast, Unfinished Song could have become hopelessly sentimental and predictable. Actually even with the cast it’s hopelessly sentimental and predictable. But because of the wonderful cast you’re transported into a world of real characters who tug at your emotions. After the first scene, you know you’re going to cry throughout this movie no matter what, so why not just let the waterworks flow and feel good about it?
It’s London, nothing fancy, two pensioners live in a small house in the suburbs. Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), in her short haircut and frequent pill swallowing, is obviously ailing. But she is effervescent, over the top with energy and love of life.
In contrast to her husband, Arthur (Terence Stamp), who hasn’t met a moment of life he wouldn’t like to stamp out. A morose curmudgeon, you find it impossible to believe that these two are married. Then you see the exquisite care with which he attends Marion, the gentle way he treats her every need, and the loving, helpless look in those famous blue eyes. It’s almost as if he loves Marion so much that he hasn’t an ounce left for anyone else, including his estranged son James (Christopher Eccleston).
Marion’s favorite activity in life is the local senior citizen choir, made up of a motley crew from London’s different populations, male and female, black, white and Indian, who gather regularly to sign their hearts out—not the traditional songs of their own generation, but the hip, sexy, fun songs of the younger generations. Instead of encouraging Marion, Arthur often makes fun of her interest in the club, and tries to prevent her from taking on the duties of a solo in the choir competition because he thinks she’ll end up being humiliated. Being a movie, of course Marion isn’t humiliated – she does a glorious job on the solo—and inspires the group to continue into the local choir competition.
Marion reminds Arthur, “What makes a song beautiful is not always the quality of the voice but the distance that voice has had to travel.” Marion knows how far she has had to travel to be able to sing her solo so well, but Arthur, alas, hasn’t gotten this insight yet. He will, of course, eventually, because it’s that kind of movie.
The choir is directed by a lovely young woman, Elizabeth, played with captivating simple magic by Gemma Atherton, whose radiance takes her part, and the movie, to a whole different level of warmth and believability.
When Marion inevitably dies, Terence is left to handle his lonely grief. But Gemma and the members of the choir conspire to get him involved in the competition, to sing for Marion. He does, with fits and starts, and that’s where all the tears come in, and you feel so good watching this cranky old man go beyond his crankiness that you unconsciously make a list of all the people you wish would see this movie and get inspired. And then you remember that maybe you should take a few pointers from the movie—and the tears start all over again. Meanwhile you get to enjoy Terence Stamp singing three songs – and you didn’t even know he was a great singer—yet another surprise.