Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Predictable Geriatric Tearjerker, Unfinished Song Is Still Just About Perfect!

The Good: Wonderful acting, Interesting characters, Engaging plot progression
The Bad: Predictable plot development
The Basics: While Unfinished Song might seem remarkably formulaic, the performers sell every moment of the film for a realistic and compelling story of love and loss.

Ever since my wife started watching Doctor Who, she has become a little obsessed with the British actor Christopher Eccleston. I can’t really blame her; he is a tremendous actor and he has an incredible range. I recall seeing him on PBS in a modernization of Othello that blew me away and so this is one of her celebrity crushes I’ve generally supported (though the whole idea that she wants to become a Doctor Who Companion as a life career choice might be a bit farfetched for my tastes). So, when our local library got in Unfinished Song featuring Eccleston, I figured it was a great way for my wife and I to spend an evening together.

And it was . . . sort of.

Unfinished Song is a moody, often depressing film that follows in a recent trend of exploring geriatric issues. Like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (reviewed here!) and last year’s Mr. Morgan’s Lost Love (reviewed here!), Unfinished Song features a mature cast playing characters who are older and have compelling life experiences that are uncommon on film. Even Disney has tried to tackle that demographic with its movie Up (reviewed here!). Unfinished Song tells a story remarkable only in its realism and emotional depth and, despite the fact that all of the elements are adequately foreshadowed (there was a moment when the movie virtually stopped and I commented to my wife “they could take a real right turn and kill him now instead . . . that would be a real surprise!” but it was not to be), compelling story.

Arthur and Marion are an old couple who have been together, with Arthur estranged from their adult son, James. Marion enjoys spending time at a senior center singing, while Arthur pretty much stays to himself (with once a week visits to the pub to visit his friends). One evening while she is at practice, Marion collapses and Arthur is shocked. A week after her collapse, her tests come back and her cancer is coming back, leaving her with a limited amount of time left to live. Marion spends that time with her friends, singing, and trying to convince Arthur and James to look out for one another after she dies. When Arthur is mean to Marion’s singing friends, Marion demands he apologize and eventually, Arthur relents and apologizes. After performing a solo that helps the musical group get into a singing competition, Marion dies peacefully.

While Arthur and James discover that Marion’s death does not put to rest their issues with one another, the members of Marion’s group mourn. Arthur finds himself following in the patterns that he and Marion had as he finds himself entirely alone (having pushed James away). Hanging out around the senior center, he is noticed by Elizabeth, the young music director of the senior center. Because the group qualified for a big competition at the concert at which Marion performed, the group is committed for another presentation. Elizabeth pushes the group over ten rehearsals to prepare for the big competition while she gets to know Arthur. The crabby Arthur has real singing ability and Elizabeth tries to tap into his potential and bring him into the group. In the process, Arthur tries to live up to his promises to Marion and become comfortable with his own, new, life.

Right off the bat, it is worth noting that Unfinished Song has amazing casting and the acting from that cast is exceptional. First, writer and director Paul Andrew Williams was genius to cast Christopher Eccleston as Terence Stamp’s son. In addition to having a facial structure – especially in the nose and eyes – that is undeniably similar, the two actors have very similar voices. Until the moment Williams cuts from one to the other, it did not hit me how wonderful the casting was for the two of them.

As well, Unfinished Song uses Gemma Arterton better than any other role I’ve yet seen her in. Arterton plays Elizabeth and at a time when she is best known for being eye candy and goddess material, Paul Andrew Williams gets her for a substantive role opposite Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and other mature actors. The thing is, Williams gives Arterton a truly deep role that is never simplistic enough to play her with obvious youthful energy opposite the older castmembers. The result is that Gemma Arterton is given the chance to truly shine as an actress and she rises to the occasion. Given the substance and depth of the part of Elizabeth and the chemistry she is able to use when playing off Stamp and Redgrave, Gemma Arterton has a meaty role that was award-worthy in Unfinished Song. She is entirely credible even when she is just conducting the seniors and she seems like a viable music teacher.

Christopher Eccleston and Venessa Redgrave are predictably wonderful in Unfinished Song. While Redgrave is given a role where she is able to play with subtlety and nuance, Eccleston’s role of James is given far fewer scenes. Even so, Eccleston is given one key moment where he emotes his loss, pain and sense of continued frustration with only his eyes and he nails all the varied emotions of the moment wonderfully. Redgrave has to play a woman at the end of her life and she is so good that it is frequently difficult to watch her as she shakes subtly and struggles with basic operations like standing.

Terence Stamp carries the movie and in Unfinished Song he arrives with his usual intensity. In Unfinished Song, Terence Stamp has a performance that effectively distinguishes him and the role of Arthur is a tough one to nail. Because the plot events surrounding Arthur’s character are intensely predictable – he sleeps on the couch after Marion’s death, he is grumpy with all of Marion’s friends, he avoids James despite the promise he made to Marion – Terence Stamp has a tough role to truly dominate (in other words, because the viewer has a pretty good idea exactly what will happen to Arthur, it’s hard for Stamp to distinguish himself when he get there). But Stamp does it. He plays grumpy without ever slipping into menace, clearly distinguishing himself from Malcolm McDowell (the two usually occupy virtually the same niche as actors). Stamp has a wonderful singing voice and his performance is powerful enough to bring a tear to the viewer’s eye.

Not feeling as oppressive as the film is sad, Unfinished Song is filled with good music and energetic performances. While I was a little let-down by the song Arthur ultimately performs (the piano cue made it sound like it would be “All By Myself” and I was in tears imagining Stamp’s vocalizations of that song, whereas his ultimate song was one I had never heard before), most of the music is adorable the way it is performed by the older actors. Seeing senior citizens singing Salt ‘N Peppa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex” is worth the price of admission alone.

On DVD, Unfinished Song features only a slew of deleted scenes (none of which were essential to the final film) and an outtake reel which is very funny. The truth is, though, Unfinished Song does not need much in the way of bonus features (I would have liked a commentary track, but, alas . . .). Unfinished Song is a heartfelt, thoughtful movie that is good date material; if it doesn’t make one want to cuddle up with their loved one, one has to wonder if they still have a heart beating in their chest!

For other works with Christopher Eccleston, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Thor: The Dark World
G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra
Heroes - Season 1
28 Days Later . . .


For other movie reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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