Stephen Walker and Sally George’s 2007 documentary “Young @ Heart,” about a chorus of Massachusetts senior citizens who perform pop covers, was so genuinely moving and respectful of its subjects that I suppose it was just a matter of time before a fiction filmmaker hijacked the premise for a manipulative, cloying feature. That’s exactly what Paul Andrew Williams—surprisingly, a Brit, not a Hollywood insider—does with “Unfinished Song,” transplanting a similar group of crooning oldsters into a conventional competition-as-climax plot. Imagine an episode of “Glee” in which the singing is deliberately mediocre-at-best and the only minority featured is the elderly.
Writer/director Williams views old people not as regular human beings, but rather a related species to which we younger folk should react in only two poignant ways. The first is laughing, as in the scene where they sing a song thought to be too taboo for people their age—Salt ‘n Peppa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” which was barely even taboo when it was released 22 years ago—because isn’t it wonderful that old people can still be silly and quirky even though they’re about to die? The second is feeling sad, as in the scene where protagonist Arthur’s (Terrence Stamp’s) song-loving wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) kicks the bucket from cancer, because death is terrible, y’all. This is to say, the filmmaker’s attempts to make the audience emote are so perfunctory, so divorced from legitimate feeling, that they never achieve their desired effect.
Unable to stand his lonely life without his wife, curmudgeonly Arthur then comes around to joining Marion’s beloved chorus, which he formerly dismissed as a waste of her precious little time left. But before we predictably learn that he can sing well (relatively speaking), giving the group a fighting chance in the upcoming competition for which Marion was intended to be their showstopper, Arthur must console in the group’s much younger teacher, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton, showing her range by playing “pretty woman” as opposed to “hot woman,” because the character demands she wear frumpier-than-usual outfits). Elizabeth and Arthur’s relationship covers mostly predictable terrain, as he deals with grief in typically despondent ways. Their only mildly interesting exchange comes when she vents about her inability to find the right man (likely a leftover from a draft of the screenplay that paired her with Arthur’s divorced son), for it results in the unintended side-effect of making us consider the grotesque possibility of Elizabeth and Arthur hooking up.
The film’s biggest sin—worse than all of the above—is that it wastes the immense talents of Stamp and Redgrave, who can only do so much with a script that reduces them to caricature. She’s the woman who loved life until her last day, he’s the old grouch who learns to look on the bright side — there’s virtually nothing more to them than that. There are very few headlining roles available to actors of their age, and when there are, they tend to be in downers like “Amour” and “Away From Her,” but this is no excuse for two of the finest performers of their generation to star in a Hallmark Channel-quality trifle like “Unfinished Song.”