'Unfinished' hits highs and lows

Gemma Arterton and Terence Stamp in 'Unfinished Song'
Gemma Arterton and Terence Stamp in 'Unfinished Song'
Photo by The Weinstein Co.
| Thursday, July 25, 2013, 8:29 p.m.

Though the plot of “Unfinished Song” seems familiar, and even predictable, the story plays out poignantly, surprising the viewer with its nuanced tenderness.

A moving meditation on aging, illness, family conflicts and long relationships, “Unfinished Song” also celebrates life and pays tribute to catchy songs. The movie works mostly because of the artistry of its stellar cast and heartfelt script by writer-director Paul Andrew Williams.

Vanessa Redgrave plays Marion, a woman who embraces joy, even as she faces her last days. It's a practical kind of contentment for this cancer patient, not all hearts and flowers. She sees her curmudgeonly husband Arthur (Terence Stamp) for what he is. But she loves him anyway. Or, more accurately, she loves what she knows still exists under his cantankerous exterior: a devoted, kindly gent.

Arthur grouses about Marion singing in a community chorus with local seniors. She smiles at his grumbling, but makes him apologize to the choral group when he's overtly rude.

Still, Arthur is a complicated guy. He adores his wife, but he's an inexplicably nasty coot toward their middle-aged son James (Christopher Eccleston), who is kind and helpful.

Arthur behaves in a matter-of-fact fashion, yet, small details betray his fear of Marion's dying. After she dies (in a low-key scene that's one of the film's finest), he retreats to a corner during the wake. Alone afterward, he lets out a keening wail.

Once Marion is gone, Arthur and James drift apart. Arthur seems to want no involvement in James' life. Hurt and bewildered, James hardens his heart.

Bereft, Arthur putters around. Then he begins showing up outside the auditorium during chorus rehearsals. The chorus is led by the perky Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), who could cheer up the most resolute malcontent. They strike up a wary friendship, born of their mutual affection for Marion. Arthur discovers the appeal of song, and replaces Marion in the chorus. It works to assuage his grief.

Finally able to shed his gruff armor, Arthur learns to tentatively take pleasure in life and reconnects with his estranged son.

The 76-year-old Redgrave is wonderfully breezy, determined and resigned as her character grows increasingly debilitated. Stamp is terrific as a grumpy, brokenhearted retiree.

The story is on surest footing during interactions among Marion, Arthur and James. Scenes of the musical competition feel contrived, especially when Elizabeth chooses heavy metal and hip-hop tunes for her over-the-hill gang. Why would a movie that showcases two dignified and vibrant septuagenarian actors also stoop to incorporate an unfunny joke of geezers rocking out and singing about sex?

Away from the choral setting, “Unfinished Song” is an uplifting ode to the celebration of life at any age.

Claudia Puig is a staff writer for USA Today.

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