Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Big Review: "Unfinished Song"

Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave in a scene from Unfinished Song
OK, Bob and Harvey. You got me. This review previously appeared in the July issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. 

The preview I saw for Unfinished Song was a raging thunderstorm of crowd-pleasing cute—from the sight of senior citizens robot dancing to Terence Stamp taking the old curmudgeon trope out for a spin. It’s a given that the movie is being distributed by The Weinstein Company, whose titles frequently mistakes maudlin for genuine. And, of course, the glorious Canadian warbling ham herself, Celine Dion, sings the end-credits song. I can’t make this stuff up. That makes the final product surprising, even remarkable. Writer-director Paul Andrew Williams’ love for his characters and his unwillingness to condescend allow this film to dance between the raindrops.

In a working-class English town, retiree Arthur (Stamp) and his wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), are settling in for the final stretch. Her cancer has returned and is determined to finish the job. Arthur and Marion handle the news in their own way. Bright and bubbly, she wants to return to her choir, a collection of old coots singing classic rock and rap songs. Arthur insists Marion rest instead of participating with what he calls, if memory serves, “a flaming nuisance.”

Arthur eventually relents. Williams has the character reach that point in an understated, and lovely way: He and Marion talk like grown-ups, simply and directly. The scenes between Redgrave and Stamp, wonderful, lived-in actors, level us. They infuse words and gestures with effortless earnestness, so a line like “I haven’t made you happy for a long time” hits you right in the gut. “You’re my rock,” she replies. That bedtime discussion encapsulates their entire marriage.

Unfinished Song shows rather than tells, which makes Stamp’s performance so astounding. He turns that great, rugged face of his into a permanent scowl. Combine that with his favorite item of clothing—a drab overcoat borrowed from the Willy Loman Collection— and Arthur looks forever engaged in a series of unpleasant tasks. Even when Arthur talks to his granddaughter on the school playground, the scene feels like a hitman meeting his handler.

When Marion dies, Arthur reluctantly steps in for her at the choir, getting help from the young director (Gemma Arterton, whom Williams has no idea how to use.). Most times, this development would turn Unfinished Song into a pile of sugary goo. Since Williams and Stamp have made Arthur into a man who has treated any hint of sentimentality as a threat to his standing as the steely patriarch—a role that Marion appreciates and his only son (Christopher Eccleston) resents—the move to the choir isn’t just a tribute to Marion: it relieves the unbearable heaviness of never letting his guard down. When Marion, sick and wobbly, sings a touching rendition of “True Colors” at an event, Arthur doesn’t stick around to congratulate her.

The details surrounding the choir—it’s competing in some kind of sing-off where Arthur has to face a giant crowd and skeptical judges—are secondary. The “someone spiked the prune juice” antics in the preview don’t define Unfinished Song, which is a pleasant surprise. Feel-good movies are usually so concerned with making you smile that the approach doesn’t matter. Cast an attractive couple, throw in a Van Morrison song or two, have a 70-year-old make a sex joke, and call it a day. The sad part is, we’ve been suckered into feeling warm and fuzzy so many times that we’re numb to the process. (Why do you think Kate Hudson was allowed to irritate the masses for so long?) Unfinished Song shocks us because it favors people over an emotional assault. But it’s so genuine and perceptive that we know it’s something special. [PG-13]

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