“Unfinished Song” lets us see what Sergeant Troy and Isadora Duncan may have looked like in their Golden Years, with Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave as an aging British couple joined by love and facing an inevitable separation.
The blue eyes still pierce and the handsome and beautiful performers still are magnetic on screen, even behind Stamp’s don’t-give-a-damn stubble and Redgrave’s closed-cropped chemo-caused hair style.
It’s a movie aimed straight at the heart, rather than the head. We’ve seen the bones of this story before, most memorably in the fictional “Brassed Off” and “The Full Monty,” in which working-class Brits turn to music and the stage to overcome adversity, and in the 2008 documentary “Young @Heart,” about a real-life amateur senior choir that continues to perform (and can be found on YouTube, if you’re interested).
Arthur (Stamp) is the gruff old guy who grudgingly makes sure his wife, Marion (Redgrave), gets to her chorus practice at the local senior center in their little English town. He indulges Marion in this simple pleasure, but he refuses to join her. A bunch of old fools thinking they can sing is not his cup of tea, or coffee.
Director Paul Andrew Williams doesn’t overdo it with his senior chorale. He doesn’t have a bunch of ringers as singers, and he doesn’t make them quirky old clowns. These are simply lively, older people who would rather do something instead of sitting home watching season 17 of “Midsommer Murders.”
Williams embraces them, the same way their pretty young director Elizabeth does. Played by Gemma Arterton (“Tamara Drew,” “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), Elizabeth takes her charges to places they have lately only remembered, if that. She dubs the choir the OAP’Z (for “old-age pensioners” with “the zed giving it some ‘street’). As with the real-life group in “Young @ Heart,” these singers forgo church music and show tunes in favor of songs like “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Love Shack,” and they run with it.
Unafraid of appearing foolish, the group is full of fun and friendship, and the joy-filled experience helps Marion keep on going. When she has a relapse, they stand in the rain to serenade her with “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
The subplot, which bubbles into prominence by the end, involves Arthur and Marion’s son, a young man who, while a father himself, has never been close to his own dad. A busy mechanic, he is juggling job, child care and his elderly parents – and none too well, in the eyes of the critical Arthur.
The family drama plays out in the background for the first half of the film, which is good-humored and timelessly romantic – most of the tears it pulls out are while everyone is still on screen. The most touching moment comes as Marion delivers a tender solo of “True Colors” to an audience that includes her stony-faced husband – opening with “You with the sad eyes / don’t be discouraged,” and having just enough strength to finish the chorus of “I see your true colors, shining through. I see your true colors, and that’s why I love you.”
When most people sing Cyndi Lauper’s hit, it is lovely. Sung by a woman with terminal cancer to the man who cannot bear to lose her, it is devastating.
Fortunately, there is plenty of time for Arthur to pick up where his wife left off, and to follow a determined, if kind of hokey and pretty unlikely, path to his own redemption.
“Unfinished Song” joins “Amour” and the animated “Up” in that narrow group of films that place high value on long and enduring love without turning their lovers into comic kooks. Williams doesn’t rehash Arthur and Marion’s whole, long love affair. We see it in their eyes and their cozy, full-size bed, and that’s enough.
Aiming at “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” audience, this “Song” is a reminder that life can have a fresh start even for those who never leave home.
Three stars (Out of four)
Starring Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams. 93 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references and rude gestures.