The movies rarely examine the natural end of life (unless the whole planet is doomed and we're all going down). Which is why Unfinished Song is so unusual and very beautiful. It talks about the pleasures of having lived a very long time -- a whole lifetime -- and then shows us how to go out with a song.
Unfinished Song is set in England. But this is not a pastoral view of England set in rolling hills or a period piece in frilly bloomers. This is the other England that one rarely sees on the silver screen. There's a dour council estate of public housing, despairing low income lives with a scratchy piece of green parkland and a miserable shop on the corner full of canned goods and yesterday's newspapers.
Apparently there's no good news here. But there is something precious in the way of community. A sense of being intertwined with others throughout one's journey, no matter how troubled an existence, bound together through births, marriages and deaths and the quiet triumphs that exist between.
Unfinished Song is a small-scale, deeply personal, movie but we would be remiss if we didn't pause here and tell you that it stars two of the most beautiful of the beautiful people from the '60s.
Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave have aged well. That's what piercing sky blue eyes, extremely long eyelashes and fantastic cheekbones will do for you. And that's just the still-exquisite Terence Stamp. Redgrave has always been unflinching in her majestic portrayal of what is it to be resolutely "Here" -- a true life force. She shines through the character of Marion and embodies such glorious dignity in someone who is dying that you cannot look away.
The plot is this: Marion is terminally ill and her husband Arthur is terrified. But he would rather die himself than admit it. The decades of bitter British conditioning of post-war bleakness and the struggle to get by have destroyed Arthur's generation, and, by extension, their children. But Arthur's one redeeming feature, beneath the cracked fierce façade, is his undying love for Marion, shining, lovely, happy and joyful, Marion.
The other two main characters are James, their son (a wonderfully restrained and powerful performance by Christopher Eccleston), and Elizabeth, the young music teacher (played sweetly by Gemma Arterton) who faces Arthur head on and cracks through his crusty defenses. She is, in a way, a younger version of Marion, someone who refuses to be bowed by circumstances or even the famously dour British weather. She sings under her umbrella, and you can't help smiling. Like Marion, she reaches behind Arthur's brusque awkwardness to find what has always cowered beneath, the need to connect and, without ruining the plot for you, to sing and to find a reason to go on.
Yes, it's a weepy. But it's also a really good rich tale that builds ideas and deepens characters until the heartstrings snap and you can't help but cry. It's good to feel stuff. And this movie is full of the best sort of feelings.
But did we mention Unfinished Song also has a gregarious bunch of seniors, (known as OAPs -- Old Age Pensioners, in the U.K.), in tie-die t-shirts singing choral arrangements of Metallica? Only the English could get away with this kind of charmingly eccentric behavior. The choir scenes are both infectious in their humor and frankly uplifting without being cloying. And those outfits will bring tears to your eyes (of helpless laughter).
Unfinished Song is an extraordinary film about ordinary lives that transcend their humble circumstances. It's about people making the best of what they have and just for an hour or so a week, in a rundown local authority hall, singing their hearts out and remembering what it was like to have lived a long, full life right up until the very last breath.