If you can squeegee the tears from the windshield of your eyes periodically, to be sure you don’t miss one exceedingly poignant sequence after another, consider it a success! Present author missed quite a bit of footage — rather, viewed it through blurry lenses — as she attempted to suppress the outright sobs formed like tidal waves ready to devour their host with the unabashed power of being moved beyond control. ‘Unfinished Song’ is carried by subjects that everyone can relate to, but many would rather not have to — cancer, death, old age, family discord, change. And it handles them with kid gloves, with pitch perfect sensitivity and grace, rather than maudlin heavy handedness, though some critics will disagree, calling it emotionally manipulative and sentimental.
The subject matter at the heart of this golden year driven film could have easily sideswiped touching significance and careened into depressing downer-ville. Who doesn’t have a parent who has been diagnosed with cancer, or has lost one or the other to the disease? Or who hasn’t had to endure treatment of the life shattering news themselves? Not many are except from either demographic, making the central plot axes searingly identifiable to just about anyone in the audience. Consequently, a catalyst for facing all manner of sad and painful emotions that many prefer to cover their eyes about than have to look at eyeball to eyeball. When forced to do so — if you paid about $12.50 for a seat in a local theater — a watershed of salty deposits of repressed feelings may avalanche down the quarry of your cheekbones. You will have to look at cancer, death of a parent, loss of a spouse, and the cruel blows of fate that is an equal opportunity pugilist.
Without denying the need to grieve and mourn life’s tragic losses, the inevitabilities of time do not have to levy bitterness, resentment, resistance, inconsolable misery, or intractable grief.
They can be faced with a joie de vivre and lightness of being, characterized by Vanessa Redgrave’s character, Marion. Though starting the story in a hopeful, yet relatively feeble state of remission from cancer, her number is called soon thereafter to face her maker. Marion has been receiving life’s greatest joy from singing in a local seniors’ choir, taught with gusto by thirty-something volunteer music teacher, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Marion’s husband is chagrinned by his wife’s insistence on exerting herself in such a way, while her health is uncertain. Nevertheless, the same effervescence that bubbles over as Marion sings in that troupe carries her through every declining day, and suffuses her very last performance. Said performance is a solo, a remixed arrangement of Cyndi Lauper’s brilliantly iconic and evocative, canonic ’80s pop ballad, True Colors. Note to audience: have eye squeegee at the ready.
The scene where Marion passes away is something most of us hope to never have to go through, yet is far too real to deny. The director, Paul Andrew Williams, paces the scene with elegance and portrays such a tragedy with integrity that stops just in time, before having to call in the “way too impossibly sad to deal with” police. Exquisitely anguishing, the exemplar of one of life’s most difficult moments — to lose a beloved of many decades, or the irreplaceable parent who changed your diapers — yet the choreography of the final hours is delivered with the same gentle mastery that characterizes the rearranged covers that sonically animate the film, from The B52s “Love Shack” to Billy Joel’s “Lullabye” (Goodnight, My Angel), to Salt-n-Papa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”
Terence Stamp gives a believable, vivid portrayal of Marion’s loving, albeit overprotective, husband, Arthur Harris. He is a misanthrope, downcast and embittered by what he perceives as life’s plodding march to death. Though the tough, leathered personality to match his skin (nevertheless as handsome in his AARP-receiving years as he was in his youthful bloom) conceals an irony that only surfaces after enough change forces him to either give up or give in. In the tradition of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Arthur re-awakens what was once a precious vulnerability and soft side, as beautiful as a meadowlark. Arthur can sing! And he does so with tenderness (that will have viewers’ poking tissues at the corners of eyes) in one of the final scenes, as he croons a solo, a gentle lullaby to his late beloved wife, appropriately entitled, “Goodnight, My Angel.”