A shy, grumpy pensioner Arthur (Terence Stamp) is reluctantly inspired by his beloved wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) to join a highly unconventional local choir – a choir composed of elderly men and women who sing contemporary pop and rock songs. At odds with his son James (Christopher Eccleston), it is left to choir director Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) to try and persuade Arthur that he can learn to embrace life. Arthur must confront the undercurrents of his own irritable personality as he embarks on a life-affirming journey.
Song for Marion is a little English film but a big package. Which is to say it has Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp in it. To cineastes of a certain age, these two are titans. They are both in their mid-70s. We do not see them that often in new pictures, so casting such names has a built-in poignancy to it. Add to that the fact that the plot is about the ravages of aging, grief and the best way to die and you may feel with some justification that this movie, which comes on so sweet, has been tooled to produce tears and smiles. It’s also got an 'old persons choir’ as a plot device. Take all this as a caution. And in the interest of complete disclosure, I admit that this is the kind of picture that brings out the cynic in me.
There is not much going on in the film on any level
Redgrave and Stamp play people that are old; I mean that’s who their characters are. We don’t find out what they did, or where they came from. But from the pokey lower middle class settings of modest homes and streets we are permitted to guess. We do know that they are soulmates. Stamp is Arthur, a self-proclaimed grumpy bastard. Marion is his wife. Folks tut-tut at the union. How did a sweetheart like Marion end up with a mongrel like Arthur? Together alone they are tender with one another.
As the first scenes passed, I thought it was going to be a Brit sad-smile version of Hanake’s Amour. The best bit in the movie arrives too early. It’s a lengthy set-piece where Arthur and Marion are preparing for bed. That doesn’t sound like the basis for a riveting and deep scene but director Paul Andrew Williams turns it into a love-song of such richness and risk he never manages another to top it.
We see how Marion and Arthur really read the other; we see how all the years they’ve spent together have made words unnecessary. And it’s all played so slowly, like the actors are moving underwater. Later I understood why: they have no time for haste because they have little time left together. That’s because Marion is dying of cancer.
After this early promise the plot takes on the simple, soothing and affirming contours of middlebrow TV drama where every crisis and dilemma is averted with a kind word and a big heart. There is not much going on in the film on any level; it’s an ugly-looking picture, a style-free zone of too many close-ups, zero atmosphere and anonymous streets that say nothing about the emotional life of the characters. Worse still is that Williams has stacked the film with so many 'right on’ hard-to-hate riffs – pensioner power/community building/generational understanding – that when the film turns out to be nothing but a shallow feel-good movie, I felt cheated.
In the story, Marion’s major pass-time is singing in the local choir group led by Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), a character so bouncy and happy she comes off as more than a bit patronising. Arthur resents the hell out of Elizabeth and the choir and what it has done for Marion because it throws his isolation and self-imposed loneliness into high relief. There’s also a subplot about Arthur and Marion’s only adult-child James (Christopher Eccleston), who doesn’t like his dad much, because, well, he wasn’t much of a dad. At least Williams conjures something genuine from their brittle father-and-son bickering and meanness. The rest of the movie merely wallows in a syrupy kind of sentimental poke as such non-questions are answered, like will the choir and the ebullient Lizzie wrest 'Arfur’ from his gloom?
Well, yes. The musical scenes are a combination of broad comedy and camp. (If you think a posse of 70-somethings doing a choral version of Motorhead’s 'Ace of Spades’ is ticklish then you’ll have fun.) But like so much of the film, even these promisingly spunky moments go on too long. That’s because neither the comedy, nor the drama, is allowed to build into something powerful.
Of course, this is the kind of movie where issues of form – suspense, surprise, invention – are very much beside the point. The plot, once set up, is a kind of machine. Watching it turn is, I guess, its essential pleasure. It’s geared so that Arthur’s eventual rescue from his personal misery is a foregone conclusion. We know his is a life worth saving; we spend the movie waiting for all the other characters to catch up with us. Still, it’s all a bit of a bore because as far as cinematic old sods go, Stamp makes a loveable one. I never felt that anything was at risk, at least for too long.
If nothing else, Redgrave and Stamp are fine. Their wrecked beauty – and the seemingly effortless way they can convey terror and love and a lifetime of hope and dignity – is gorgeous to behold.