Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) may be old but she still wants to have a bit of fun, and so she joins a singing group at a nearby senior center. Her antisocial husband, Arthur (Terence Stamp), thinks the choir is ridiculous, and that by entering into a competition, they will all be humiliated. He would rather Marion stayed home where he can take care of her. But since Marion has cancer, he reluctantly goes along with her wish to sing in public. More supportive is the choir’s volunteer director, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), who wants the seniors to rock out as a way to integrate them with contemporary culture. Accompanied by much tittering and giggling, she teaches them to sing and dance to “Let’s Talk About Sex.”
This part of Unfinished Song is even more awful than it sounds, and among recent movies trying to deal honestly yet humorously with old age (such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), it’s the lamest of the bunch. Arthur’s nagging disapproval of his son, James (Christopher Eccleston), a perfectly decent if unexceptional single father, is little more than mawkish filler, and the musical interludes (solos excepted) are ghastly. Lemmy may be pushing 70, but that still doesn’t excuse sticking a fright wig on a lively codger and having him play air guitar to Mötorhead.
And yet, there are moments between Marion and Arthur that perfectly capture a long and happy marriage as it winds down into disability. Redgrave’s unvarnished performance allows for a gentle intimacy with facing the inevitable, and her rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” is a heartbreaker. Meanwhile, Stamp holds the camera with a charismatic smolder that builds into a quiet tour-de-force. With Elizabeth’s encouragement, Arthur comes out of his decades-long shell and takes a chance on being sociable, and then, triumphantly, on being optimistic. For all its old-folks hokum, Unfinished Song does deliver on a belief that it’s never too late to change.