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Movie Review

Hearing secret harmonies in ‘Unfinished Song’

Terence Stamp plays a grumpy man who joins his wife’s community senior choral group.

Nick Wall/Weinstein Company

Terence Stamp plays a grumpy man who joins his wife’s community senior choral group.

Vanessa Redgrave and Stamp in “Unfinished Song.”

Weinstein Company

Vanessa Redgrave and Stamp in “Unfinished Song.”

Has there ever been a more beautiful man than Terence Stamp on the big screen? And he can sing, too. He and Vanessa Redgrave, as well as supporting actors Christopher Eccleston and Gemma Arterton, raise Paul Andrew Williams’s entry in the golden age genre from mawkish to genuinely heartwarming.

Heartbreaking, too. There may not be many dry eyes when Marion (Redgrave), plucky and ebullient despite being confined to a wheelchair with cancer, sings Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” to her grumpy husband, Arthur, played by Stamp. Or in a later scene when Stamp reciprocates with Billy Joel’s “Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel),” though under different circumstances. They are an extreme example of the saying that opposites attract: She is bursting with joie de vivre, while his face is blank and bitter, crossed with remote feelings like sunlight and shadow across a bleak landscape.

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Naturally he wants nothing to do with the community senior choral group that Marion participates in, the “OAP’Z” (for “Old Age Pensioner,” with a “z” to make them seem hip), and you can’t blame him. It’s packed with senior stereotypes, shown doing their cute old people stuff like talk about sex — in fact “Let’s Talk About Sex” is one of their numbers, along with Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” complete with air-guitar solos. Williams might have taken a tip from Stephen Walker and Sally George’s excellent 2007 documentary about a real senior singing group, “Young @ Heart,” and done the old choristers justice; here too often they come off like jolly wrinkled children, acting precociously.

The choir director, though, fares better. Played by Arterton, Elizabeth treats her charges without the condescension that the filmmaker sometimes allows himself. She’s upbeat but tough, with a checkered backstory that really doesn’t need to be as detailed as it is here — the snippets of voice-over narration and a teary interlude are awkward and unconvincing. But she’s a less forgiving counterpoint than Marion to Arthur’s pessimism, and chastises him when he gets overly nihilistic, self-pitying, or abusive. And a not quite erotic undercurrent charges their moments together, and their relationship achieves the rare connection between young and old souls reminiscent of that in Krzysztof Kieslowki’s “Red.”

So empowered, she nudges him to lighten up and join the group, a gradual process that allows him to show vulnerability without losing his majestic orneriness. In an underwritten subplot she also tries to mend the breach between Arthur and his son James (Eccleston). Though Eccleston doesn’t have a lot to work with, his scenes with Stamp suggest his decades of ill treatment by his distant dad, a reminder that, sad as he seems now, Arthur was not a nice man.

Compared to Michael Haneke’s lauded, remorseless, Oscar-winning film on a similar subject, “Amour” (2012), Williams’s effort might seem trifling and sentimental. But it doesn’t need a climactic pillow scene to make its point; the truth about love and grief and renewal are all there to be seen in Terence Stamp’s face.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.
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