Film Review: Song for Marion (2012)

“I am a bit scared”

I wanted very much to like Song for Marion, the Paul Andrew Williams film retitled Unfinished Song for the North American market (was that purely because the Diane Warren-penned Céline Dion song that unexpectedly plays over the end credits has that title?), but its generic tear-jerking qualities which seem to borrow from any number of recent heart-warming Brit-flicks fall flat in the face of its good intentions. Vanessa Redgrave plays Marion, terminally ill but determined to live what life remains to the full by singing in a local choir called the OAPz. Her husband Arthur is diametrically opposed though, Terence Stamp characterising excellently his emotional repression and unspoken grief at the way in which life has turned out and only grudgingly prepared to build the bridges he needs to carry on life without his wife in the way she wants him to.

Stamp and Redgrave pair beautifully as this mis-matched couple – his gruffly taciturn nature keeping a constant edge in the saccharine morass, her instinctive vivacity tempered by a wonderful sense of the ordinary – and their family dynamic, along with divorced son (Christopher Eccleston) and granddaughter, is well-drawn, most affecting as they come to terms with the speed of her demise. But the focus of the film settles on the music group led by Gemma Arterton’s relentlessly perky Elizabeth and it is here that Williams comes undone when dealing with his older company. Elizabeth has her choir singing rap and rock songs like Salt’n’Pepa’s ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ and Motörhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ but there’s never any emotional connection to the material. It’s just there for the shock value and so there’s an uncomfortable feeling that we’re closer to laughing at than with the choir. 

There’s little work to done to distinguish any of these supporting characters and so what we’re left with is the novelty of Anne Reid taking the lead on singing about sex – oh how raunchily shocking. And without any sense of resonance to what they are doing, the rehearsal and performance scenes that ought to sparkle with life and exuberance feel flat and uninspired, and the less said about Elizabeth’s cringingly awful dialogue when leading the choir the better. The rare moments of touching grace come predictably with predominantly solo numbers from the leads – Redgrave’s fragile take on ‘True Colors’ and (spoiler-ish) Stamp’s ‘Goodnight My Angel’ are both rooted in a deeper emotional truth that captures much of the transformative power of music and performance, something sadly lacking from the majority of the film. 

The choice to put Ms Dion on the soundtrack symptomises this (though I appreciate decisions like these may come from way on high), the creatives lacking the courage or even downright sense to have one of the OAPz numbers reinforcing the message that ought to shine out. As it is, Song for Marion holds little genuine appeal, not least for its vaguely patronising approach to old people and sex.

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