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'Unfinished Song' review: Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp are first-rate

Vanessa Redgrave and Terrence Stamp in "Unfinished Song."

Vanessa Redgrave and Terrence Stamp in "Unfinished Song." Credit: AP

Every movie should probably be assessed in a vacuum, but that's a fairly impossible proposition: It's all relative in the end, and amid the clangor of the summer movie season, something like "Unfinished Song" has an arthritic leg up on the competition.

The story of a couple deeply in love, and deeply into their dotage, it stars the redoubtable Terence Stamp as Arthur, a retiree whose only joy is his wife, Marion (the epic Vanessa Redgrave), who is suffering a recurrence of cancer. Failing, she devotes her dwindling energy to the Old Age Pensioners singing group, which is rehearsing for a national competition. Anyone beyond the constituency of "Teletubbies" can see where this is going.

How it gets, there, however, is made sufferable, even palatable, by the performances of Redgrave and Stamp, as well as Brit ingénue Gemma Arterton, who plays the choir's ebullient coach. While it doesn't qualify as conspiracy theory, something's going on here: "Unfinished Song" arises out of the U.K.-export "Brassed Off"/"Full Monty" competition-movie tradition; it also echoes the Brit-centric, elder-crisis format explored so well recently by "Quartet" and "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel." It also fully exploits the rather tired device of having "proper" English people say embarrassing things (or sing them, a la "Let's Talk About Sex, Baby").

"Unfinished Song" owes a huge and unacknowledged debt to the American documentary "Young@Heart," which concerned geriatric interpreters of Jimi Hendrix and Sonic Youth. But that was an anomaly. Evidence would suggest that the Brits are the only people who find narrative value in humans -- or machines -- over the age of 17. And are elderly English somehow more acceptable to Americans, who keep their own oldies well off-screen? Guess so. In and of itself, "Unfinished Song" is just a predictably feel-good story with some exceptional acting -- and singing. Redgrave's rendition of Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" will leave the viewer in a puddle; Stamp kills on Billy Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)."

But as a cultural phenomenon, it's clearly something more -- as well as a palliative for the traditional summertime agonies of our native screen.

PLOT Cranky old man with an ailing wife discovers the joy of making music.

RATING PG-13 (some sexual references and rude gestures)

CAST Vanessa Redgrave, Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton


BOTTOM LINE Shamelessly sentimental, cute to a fault, but the acting is first-rate.

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