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Unfinished Song | Review

Undercooked Film: William’s Change of Pace Rings False

Paul Andrew Williams Unfinished Song PosterHow could one not be curious to see Paul Andrew Williams’ (the UK director responsible for strange genre creatures like The Cottage, 2008, and London to Brighton, 2006) Unfinished Song, a take on formulaic drama concerning a long married couple coping with impending death due to cancer and conflict revolving around a kooky local choir? Especially when said couple is played by the likes of Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp. Sounds like a musically inclined take on Amour mixed with Quartet. Due to the emotionally invested performances from several cast members, there happen to be a few glimmering moments of quality to be experienced, but these kernels are few and far between in a mixed bag that has far too many bland elements. Unfortunately, the film is a disservice to its iconic leads and its offbeat director, who is bravely trying something new, but sadly relying too much on cliché.

The maudlin and morose Arthur (Terence Stamp) has been long married to the lively and vibrant Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), who has recently finished chemotherapy and has invested a passionate amount of time in the local senior choir run by a pretty young volunteer, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Arthur is not pleased with Marion’s involvement in the choir, often dropping her off and then smoking outside until choir practice has finished. Much to his chagrin, Elizabeth has enrolled the choir in a local contest for which they first have to audition.

Unfortunately, Marion’s cancer also makes a swift return, but even though her health is failing, it is her adamant wish to sing a solo in the choir’s audition. This causes conflict with the reserved but caring Arthur, who is now forced to depend on their son, James (Christopher Eccleston), who he has painstakingly distanced himself from, in order to help care for Marion. While Marion gets her wish, Arthur finds himself struggling after her expected passing. But after some time, he begins to bond with the persistent Elizabeth and opening up in ways that are surprising to him (though not really for the rest of us).

Unfinished Song manages to muster some saving grace with a moving performance from Vanessa Redgrave, and as corny as it is so to have a robust crowd of senior citizens singing Salt n Pepa, it’s Redgrave’s solo of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” that almost makes all the rest of the schmaltz worthwhile. Her inevitable absence from the film turns Unfinished Song into a film as dry as crusty, day old bread.

For his part, Stamp is also quite effective, though he’s saddled with a tedious and predictable character arc, stapled into a narrative that seems fearful of trying anything remotely exciting. Supporting characters from Eccleston and Arterton are given the short shrift with skimpy backstories, though Arterton does her best to remain an upbeat and warm presence throughout.

Williams devolves into lazy montages and unbelievably fast conflict resolutions, with only the handsomely weathered faces of its two leads providing any sort of visual stimulus. At its anticlimactic finale, Unfinished Song remains an oddly dull duck that forces its audience to look death closely in the eye while at the same time administering the cloak of escapism via a distracting and fantastically rote narrative.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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