Paul Andrew Williams, the British writer-director of “Unfinished Song,” uses every cheap trick at his disposal to elicit emotions from the audience, including cancer, a strained father-son relationship and a choir serenading a dying woman with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” while standing in the rain. How dare he.
And yet, these unmistakable manipulations are difficult to see through all the tears. Thank the two leads, Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave, for that. The formidably talented pair inject so much humanity into their characters that all of the other overly sentimental elements – even the title sounds like it belongs on the Hallmark Channel – seem utterly reasonable.
Stamp plays Arthur, a salty bloke who has little patience for anything except his wife and granddaughter. He assumes the worst from people, especially his son, James (Christopher Eccleston). Arthur appears to ask James for favors with the express purpose of lecturing the divorced dad over what the old spitfire will certainly deem mediocre results. Yet when it comes to his dying wife, Marion (Redgrave), Arthur is loving, if not overly demonstrative. They have a playful rapport that feels natural.
The importance of the pair’s chemistry can’t be overstated. If Arthur was an angry, one-note Scrooge, it would be impossible to care about his fate. Even with the tiniest of gestures, Stamp never misses an opportunity to show that Arthur is capable of love, which makes him sympathetic even when he’s at his worst (which is a lot).
Marion’s participation in a choir, led by kindly young do-gooder Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), is a source of disagreement for the longtime couple. Arthur bristles when the group of elderly chanteuses enters a competition; he assumes the whole lot of them is about to be humiliated. But embarrassment is the least of Marion’s concerns. She just wants to have a bit of fun while she still can.
It wouldn’t be right to give away much more of the plot, except to say that at some point Arthur has to make decisions that involve either continuing to push people away, as he has always done, or gamble on wholeheartedly embracing relationships.
In one scene, the camera shows Arthur and James on either side of a wall in Arthur’s house. James is giggling with his young daughter in the kitchen, and Arthur begins to walk toward them, but something stops the man in his tracks. It is an understated and tragic moment.
Somehow, these small moments manage to compensate for the movie’s flaws. Some of the low points include song selection for the upcoming competition (Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”), the lack of memorable characters within the choir, Elizabeth’s unnecessary sporadic narration and one scene when the elderly singers try to learn to dance the robot for no apparent reason except cheap laughs.
But these missteps don’t diminish the strength of the film and the importance of its messages. It’s worth a watch, if just for Stamp’s complex performance. Just don’t forget to bring some tissues.