The first half of Unfinished Song is predictable but still some of the most powerful filmmaking I have seen in 2013, making the beginning of this film as good as Mud and Ginger and Rosa, maybe better. Had the second half of writer/director Paul Andrew Williams’ feature equaled the first’s in character and plot development, Unfinished Song would probably be my favorite movie of the year.
But it doesn’t.
Which is not to say that the second half of this film is bad. It isn’t. It’s just to say that it regresses to average, featuring moments that don’t ring true (like Elizabeth crying at Arthur’s front door), other moments that are a bit fantastical, and more that are rushed or under explained (namely those involving Arthur and James).
The performances in Unfinished Song are flawless. Terrence Stamp (Arthur) and Vanessa Redgrave (Marion) form a terrific tandem, convincing as husband and wife and best friends at every turn. Redgrave is especially magical; I never expected that someone singing True Colors (a song I don’t even like) slightly off key would be as impacting as she makes it. Stamp is very good as well, giving Unfinished Song perhaps its most poignant moment, when Arthur stops in a hallway, mid-way to his giggling son and granddaughter, thinks about it, and then returns to sit at the foot of his wife’s bed.
Christopher Eccleston is very good as James. And Gemma Arterton (Elizabeth) proves she can act, though you would never know it from this year’s Hansel and Gretel.
My main problem with Unfinished Song is that the second half feels less like its trying to develop a character and more like it’s trying to pull at our heartstrings, Hallmark movie style. Elizabeth showing up at Arthur’s door, weeping, Arthur happening to hear someone read a poem about his wife, James rebuffing his father, and so forth . . . These moments all feel either out of character or not about character. These moments feel like they’re meant to manipulate the viewer into feeling.
My secondary problem is that none of the choir members are developed. The choir’s teacher, Elizabeth, gets treatment, but the rest of the singing cast is ignored. This film could have been more powerful if one or two of them had mattered more.
Unfinished Song is definitely worth viewing. It’s sweet and, like Quartet, offers a generous portrayal of finding joy in old age. It also features some terrific performances from some terrific actors. Both Redgrave and Stamp might have a shot at award recognition, especially if the picture’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, generates the sort of buzz it usually does.
The picture’s flaws are even forgivable, but if they had been mitigated, Unfinished Song would have been more powerful.