Paul Andrew Williams’ Unfinished Song (UK title Song for Marion) is a sweet, gentle film that deals with advancing age, dysfunctional family relationships, the loss of a beloved spouse, and finding the strength to go on through the inspiration of music. Such themes might suggest a gloomy couple of hours were it not for the luminous presence of the trio of leading actors, veterans Terrence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave and the lovely young Gemma Arterton.
The story line follows a pensioner, Arthur Harris, who is struggling to cope with his wife Marion’s diagnosis of terminal cancer. Solitary and dour by nature, angry at the hand fate has dealt them, Arthur reluctantly accedes to his wife’s wish to participate in a senior chorus led by sunny and indomitable local music teacher, Elizabeth. When Marion does pass away, Arthur’s loneliness and grief overwhelm him; he further alienates his son with whom relations have long been difficult, and he initially resists Elizabeth’s efforts to bring him out of his seclusion. Slowly, Elizabeth succeeds, as she coaxes from him the song he shared with Marion. These events are framed within the device of a choral competition which is perhaps all too predictable, but does offer lighter moments of playful comedy as well as the tender outpouring Arthur renders on stage.
Williams’ direction is low key and candid without ever becoming grim. The film has the look – slightly modernized – of the gritty, anti-establishment, working class theatre of the 60s, and Williams is due credit for maintaining an equilibrium of tone – both sorrowful and uplifting – that never descends into sentimentality.
The heart of the drama lies in the acting with fearless performances by Terrence Stamp as Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Marion. It is so inspiring that in recent years a whole generation of British actors, now in their seventies and eighties have chosen to take the stage and screen in dramatic vehicles that make no apology for their age, but rather depict bravely the realities of growing old.
Stamp at seventy-four still cuts an imposing figure and gripping presence with riveting blue eyes, and he makes Arthur’s transformation from curmudgeon to vulnerable widower a slow and poignantly wrenching one. In the penultimate scene where he performs at the competition, he delivers the lyrics with the stony courage of a doomed man who is redeemed only when his intimidating task has been completed.
As the frail and fading Marion, Vanessa Redgrave (seventy-five) projects such radiance and hope that her death becomes a more monumental loss for everyone. Christopher Eccleston as the couple’s estranged son is appropriately all rough edges on the exterior and all wordless suffering within.
As the music teacher who becomes a kind of surrogate daughter to Arthur, Gemma Arterton exudes an infectious, sometimes cheeky optimism, as well as a naiveté combined with mature wisdom. Her performance has a grace and buoyancy that is totally irresistible. Were it not for her steely charm, the film might become mired in sadness after Marion’s departure. But, like Elizabeth’s senior charges, the audience is propelled along on an improbable quest whose rewards prove to be far greater than the small third place trophy the chorus wins.
For ultimately, Unfinished Song is a modest, humble tribute to music as a metaphor for joy and love and as a vehicle for sharing the secrets of the heart.