The fine line between "feel good" and "lay off, will ya?" becomes very fine indeed in "Unfinished Song," a shrewdly performed, slightly galling heartwarmer shot in the northeast corner of England.
Writer-director Paul Andrew Williams' picture aims for the same demographic as did "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel" and "Calendar Girls," two better examples of this sort of thing. And when it's over you may notice red marks on your throat, so determined is "Unfinished Song" to strangle the audience into emotional submission. Under these circumstances, thank the acting gods for Terence Stamp! And Vanessa Redgrave. She's OK too.
With minimalist tact, Stamp plays Arthur, the barely communicative retiree whose ebullient wife (Redgrave) sings in the local community center choir while coping with increasingly serious health problems. The chipper-if-patronizing choir director (Gemma Arterton) becomes Arthur's sounding board and amateur therapist, helping to repair the rift between Arthur and his auto mechanic son (Christopher Eccleston). Circumstances roughly midway through the film cause Arthur to venture out of his tiny comfort zone and join the Old Age Pensioners chorus himself.
In their scenes together, Stamp and Redgrave provide an example of two utterly different performers somehow making sense together. Redgrave throws caution to the wind and goes for it in every scene, right or wrong, small or large. Her thrilling unpredictability on stage (she was brilliant in director Robert Falls' "Long Day's Journey Into Night") has a way of seeming just plain hammy on screen. "Unfinished Song" encourages it — subtle it isn't — and the climax, in which Stamp digs deep down within himself onstage, alone, pushes its luck beyond previously known limits of tear-jerking pathos in this genre.
There's a great and moving 2007 documentary, "Young@Heart," about a choir of Massachusetts seniors letting loose on rock and punk songs. "Unfinished Song," titled "Song for Marion" in its U.K. release, is a different, more calculating beast. There's something off in its scenes of Arterton's romantically unlucky loner showing up at Arthur's home, in the rain, distraught. If the movie weren't so determined to placate, you'd think you're in for a daring exploration of an affair between a 30-something emotional cripple and a 70-something sexy beast, unchained at last.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and rude gestures)
Running time: 1:36