Part end-of-life romance, part grossly manipulative mush, Unfinished Song tries to stare grief and mortality in the face while practically shitting rainbows. From Hallmark adages and a cherubic granddaughter to cancer death and senior-citizen exploitation, it barely takes a step without referring to a sappy, patronizing checklist. Its closest relative is the 2008 documentary Young@Heart, which similarly followed the endeavors of a choir of spry silver foxes, but at least padded its force-fed sentiment with a steady undercurrent of true feeling. Unfinished Song, which stars Vanessa Redgrave as Marion, a terminally ill choir member, and Terrence Stamp as Arthur, her loving but tediously cantankerous husband, eventually leaves no maudlin stone unturned, waging a virtual war against viewers trying hard to curb their cynicism. Worse yet, the film pours on the grating syrup while fostering Arthur’s de-grouching arc, leaving the audience with a sensation that’s polar opposite to the antihero’s, like being smothered while watching someone slowly breathe in fresh air.
Of course, things don’t start out all bad. If there’s one elegant decision made by director Paul Andrew Williams, it’s the immediate visual isolation of Arthur, who’s captured in frequent, lonely wide shots that serve as compositional prep for his impending loss. And Redgrave, whose completist fans are the only sensible folks for whom this film is recommended, exquisitely carves out a singular take on the doomed patient with irrepressible zest, somehow forming vivid characterization with lines like, “Give me a kiss; I might not wake up tomorrow.” The actress appears heartbreakingly fragile and surely drew on her own family’s recent string of deaths. Since Stamp plays his bland curmudgeon on grimace-y autopilot, and Gemma Arterton, as chirpy choir leader Elizabeth, fails to make any believable impact, Redgrave is the only one giving an actual performance here, and when Marion succumbs to her disease around the halfway point, Unfinished Song unequivocally dies with her.
What remains, and what even surrounds the character prior, is a near-unwatchable dramedy that alternates between baldfaced clichés and shameless emotional bait, be it an endlessly lingering close-up on Arthur’s teary, baggy eyes, or the use of songs that seem to function solely for the elicitation of cheap laughs. Like Young@Heart, the movie aims to challenge norms and taboos by handing its seniors a playlist of boundary-pushers, including hip-hop and hair-metal tracks. But no matter how much Unfinished Song tries to convince audiences that their discomfort is their own ageist problem, there’s really no excuse for the way it employs Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which is in a drastically different key than the rest of the proceedings, inspires a choir member to offer herself to a judge in the movie’s inevitable competition, and is so clearly ill-advised that even the film itself shies away from it, dubbing over rehearsals of the nookie anthem with a rendition of Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” Add to that Arthur’s wholly implausible changes of heart, and voiceover tidbits like “A clever person once said, ’Everything happens for a reason,’” and the whole thing starts to feel like some mad, elaborate joke, less Young@Heart than Amour as directed by @Michael_Haneke.