A few years ago, it was unusual to come across a film made for the post-sixty-year-olds. Even among art house cinema films, the focus was pretty much on the thirty-somethings. Then, in 1999, Tea with Mussolini and its aging cast of Judi Dench, Joan Plowright and Maggie Smith received art house distribution and made some money. Five years later, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith reteamed for Ladies in Lavender which also made a profit.
By 2005, the message was clear. While Harry Potter, Jack Sparrow, Batman, Ironman, and Spiderman dominated big and small screens, there still was room for a few art films about aging characters—especially when the characters were played by outstanding actors.
In Evening, Vanessa Redgrave plays a dying woman reviewing her past, and in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson and other fine actors explore the notion of retirement in a strange, exotic—and affordable—setting. Also, recently, the Oscar-winning French film Amour told of an elderly couple trying to keep their dignity as they deal with the wife’s severe stroke. A few months ago, Quartet, Dustin Hoffman’s entry into this marketplace, attracted a good number of older viewers.
Now, we have a new entry, Unfinished Song. This British production features Vanessa Redgrave and Terrence Stamp as a longtime couple about to be separated by mortality. Redgrave plays Marion, a life-loving, music-loving woman—a vibrant and warm person who has many friends and sings in the local group called the OAPZ, the Old Age Pensioners. Stamp’s character is gruff and unfriendly; he is a man who has rebuffed the community and dismisses even his son. With Marion’s passing, Arthur needs to change his ways. He needs to do this to pay tribute to Marion, the great love of his life, and to make a place for himself within his community. He does so in Marion’s shadow—through song.
Unfinished Song is a beautifully executed film with a very strong cast and a story founded in real life. It is sensitively directed. Because the actors are so solid, director Paul Andrew Williams is able to include a number of expressive mute moments where the camera simply witnesses the grief and emotion of his characters, with no dialog needed.
Unfinished Song deals with a number of underlying topics that are pertinent to seniors, particularly to aging couples. The film explores gender roles in a fair and balanced way and it also looks at roles that partners take on in long-term relationships and how those roles change when one partner is gone.
I used to think that most of life’s adventures took place when one first explores life-- first love, first job, first apartment… Now I know better. The aging process brings on different challenges. These are challenges that are every bit as difficult and exciting. It’s gratifying to see these later-life issues being explored in first-class films such as Unfinished Song.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She teaches film studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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