3 out of 4 stars
Both starting their careers at about the same time in the early '60s, British thespians Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave never met with the same level of popularity as most of their fellow countrymen from the same era but have managed to outlive and outshine the bulk of them with their collective bodies of work.
"Unfinished Song" (titled "Song for Marion" outside the U.S.) is a film where both Stamp and Redgrave are shown in unflattering lights (one physical, the other emotional) and neither gives a damn that they're no longer young, sexy or are now on the shorter end of their life cycle. They're comfortable with who they are and embrace advanced age as a reward. They've been through the mill and are devoid enough in the ego department to play their age with grace and unfettered decorum. Bully for them.
Wisely avoiding a lot of unneeded back story, writer/director Paul Andrew Williams uses great economy and quickly gets the audience into the story. In the final throes of an unspecified disease, the eternally optimistic Marion (Redgrave) spends what time she has left at a local community center as the member of a senior choir.
Marion's husband Arthur (Stamp) is a cranky curmudgeon. He would prefer Marion to stay at home full time and stare at the walls with him. In no way abusive or neglectful, Arthur is still emotionally distant, perpetually glum and anti-social and is highly attentive to Marion's physical condition, a point not lost on Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), the slightly off-beat choir director.
The only one who doesn't recognize the significant therapeutic value of Marion's hobby, Arthur is angry that she's sick, terrified of the possibility of life without her and certainly hurt that she looks elsewhere for pleasure. Going from bad to worse, Arthur starts putting undo pressure on his single-father son James (Christopher Eccelston) to share some of the custodial burden while he goes out drinking with his mates.
With his arctic blue eyes, gravely baritone, determined square jaw and thinning white hair, Stamp is every bit as imposing as he was a half-century ago in his Oscar-nominated title performance in "Billy Budd." Stamp (surely at Williams' urging) also resists the temptation to "soften" Arthur or have him expose any vulnerabilities. It's rare to find an actor willing to play a character so selfish and short-sighted but Stamp pulls it off splendidly.
As Marion, Redgrave is equally brave by appearing with little to no makeup, a weed wacker hairdo and a projecting optimism without any kind of matyrish or Pollyanna undertones. If there is anyone who should be angry with Arthur it is Marion yet she sees what she believes to be his good side even when he's being a lout. She also has him (fairly) pay when he goes too far.
Although not painfully obvious, it's a fair assumption that Williams based a healthy chunk of his screenplay on "Young@Heart," the 2008 documentary about a New England senior choir group that sang rap, metal and new wave songs. All three of those genres make an appearance here with "Let's Talk About Sex" becoming the centerpiece selection. Watching seniors sing about carnal delights brings with it squirmy titilation, a high shock value and giggle factor that loses its novelty appeal pretty quickly.
The start of the third act sees the narrative transition from thoughtful, brittle drama to far-lighter, unabashed, heart-tugging, sometimes jokey sentimentality. It's not a deal killer as such -- mostly because the actors sell it so well -- but it does feel like something of a minor thematic sell-out. The final scene -- with Stamp performing a vocal solo -- redirects Arthurs' unwavering steely resolve into a more positive light that most certainly does not feel like a sell-out. It allows Arthur to go out on a dignified and moving high note. (The Weinstein Company)