On the surface, Unfinished Song plays like one of those sappy Lifetime movies you turn off when granny falls asleep in front of the TV. Grumpy old Arthur Harris (Terence Stamp) bitches about taking his wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) to choir practice. She’s dying of cancer for pity’s sake. Arthur thinks Marion should stay home and forget she has a life, including a grown son (Christopher Eccleston) and a granddaughter (Orla Hill). Instead, Marion soldiers on at old-biddy rehearsals run by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), a young hottie wasting her nights teaching retirees to rock out to Salt’N’Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.” What – you were expecting Kanye and Yeezus? Unfinished Song is Glee for seniors living in the hope of making it to nationals.
Hold the cringes. Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams, Unfinised Song is better than Glee, way better. Nobody on that painfully-dying series has the talent of Stamp, 74, and Redgrave, 76, two acting legends who could breathe creative helium into anything, including this corpse of a script. Back in 1967, at the height of their youth and beauty, Stamp and Redgrave almost teamed in the film version of Camelot. But the singing scared off Stamp and Richard Harris played the warbling King Arthur. Hearing Stamp sing here, you can regret that decision right along with him. His voice, raised in song for Marion on Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)” beautifully blends lightness and gravity. One caveat: fans of Stamp as the evil General Zod in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies (“Kneel before Zod!”) may never recover.
No matter. Stamp’s award-caliber performance as a closed-off man on the brink of turning into stone is a miracle of subtlety and feeling. This is acting of the highest order. Redgrave partners him superbly, bringing warmth and nurturing humor to a role she refuses to play for easy tears. Still, her version Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” will choke you up. What Stamp and Redgrave really accomplish here is to paint a portrait of a long marriage without resorting to flashbacks or expository dialogue. It’s in every look and gesture. In the film, a comment is made about the power of a voice being not in technique but in the journey it took to get there. Stamp and Redgrave and living embodiments of that philosophy. Just sit back and behold.