Unfinished Song is basically two movies inelegantly stuffed into one. Both are about aging—its setbacks and second chances—but only one of them feels like an honest exploration of the topic. The better half of the film is a kinder, gentler cousin to 2012’s Amour: an elderly introvert (Terence Stamp) cares for his dying wife (Vanessa Redgrave), contemplating the better husband and father he could have been. There’s enough juice in that premise to fuel an affecting indie drama. So why did writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, a British helmsman with a history of horror flicks under his belt, feel the need to drop his credible characters into one of those cornball crowd-pleasers about old folks doing things old folks don’t normally do? This is the movie that the pastel poster promises—and it puts a real damper on the subtler, smarter movie it often interrupts.
The unlikely elderly pastime is belting out covers of rock and pop tunes, and nothing makes the ailing Redgrave happier than singing with a local choir of fellow senior-citizen crooners. Even after she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, Redgrave won't give the pipes a rest—despite the stern disapproval of her husband, a grump whose stone-faced seriousness the movie only sometimes plays for laughs. It’s a given that Stamp will eventually soften through song, his defenses worn down by Gemma Arterton’s relentlessly cheerful music teacher. But on the way to that inevitable redemption, Unfinished Song allows for a few rocky detours; there’s nothing jokey, for example, about the old man’s strained relationship with his grown son (Christopher Eccleston), or his inability, even in his final days with Redgrave, to say what he really feels.
As an actor, Stamp hasn’t a sentimental bone in his body, which helps. When he bellows that it’s too late for him to change, the whole film seems to buckle, however briefly, under the full weight of his regret. It’s a rich performance—so rich, in fact, that the movie around it only looks flimsier by comparison. For all its sporadic flashes of insight, Unfinished Song is built around the assumption that there’s nothing funnier than old timers throwing devil horns, doing the robot, or performing a rousing rendition of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let's Talk About Sex.” While the documentary Young@Heart celebrated the spirit of real geriatric choirs, Unfinished Song turns their efforts into fodder for both kitschy comedy and triumph-of-the-underdogs cliché. Stamp, who’s initially concerned that audiences will simply laugh at his wife and her songbird companions, eventually swallows his pride and gets in on the action. Maybe he had it right the first time.