I saw A Song For Marion (known in USA as Unfinished Song) in my local multiplex at a matinée, in the smallest auditorium of the complex. It was advertised as a comedy/drama. On IMDb it comes under Comedy, Drama, Music, in this order. There were around 15 people in the audience. I do not usually read the reviews and was looking forward to seeing Vanessa Redgrave and Terence Stamp as an old couple. As the reviews and friends predicted , I cried during some scenes, but was surprised and annoyed by the underlying ageism of some others.
On first impression the film seems simple, superficial, predictable and overly sentimental. On reflexion this simplicity covers up a mess of ideas that do not coalesce in any way and may explain different views including mine that the comedy strand of the film resides in laughing at old people.
Here I must declare my point of view. About pop songs I know very little apart from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But I am very familiar with and appreciative of community choirs which are amateur choirs. One of my daughters and four of my friends across the country lead community choirs and more than a dozen of my friends do sing in choirs. I am told that the growth of this community activity across the world is astounding. A great number of the choirs are made up of older people with a majority of women singers: the ‘silver choirs’. They function as a group of people who share something enjoyable and over time become a close supporting group of friends. I am also told that taste in music in these circles cannot be predicted and does not depend on age. (see the Young at Heart Choir). It is certain that choirs give a voice to people who cannot express themselves in other circumstances.
The linear story tells of the interaction between the main protagonists Marion, Arthur, Elizabeth and the choir. Marion sings in the choir that Arthur disapproves of. Elizabeth is the leader of the choir. Marion dies, Arthur grieves and isolates himself. Elizabeth convinces Arthur to sing in the choir.
The performances of Stamp as grumpy caring Arthur and Redgrave as the terminally ill but cheerful Marion were understated and infinitely touching. The caring gestures of undemonstrative Arthur and his way of fulfilling his wife’s courageous wishes are subtle and effective. Also the supporting role of the choir during Marion’s last days is well represented. She sings solo True Colours in a village fete because as spelt out ‘she may not be around’ for the competition finals. Redgrave articulates every word of this song that she sings publicly for her husband. The lyrics reflect well enough their relationship. Not a dry eye in the house.
The departure of the old woman from the story transforms the realism of the film into a superficial assembly of issues that deserve better exposition: the expression and need to grieve, father/son conflict, old man/young woman friendship, benefit of singing, lack of men in choirs, importance of songs, young people in voluntary work, old people can have fun.
On the death of his wife Arthur grieves and isolates himself . He breaks all ties with his single-father son and granddaughter. He has never had a good relationship with his son James. Why? We do not know. Elizabeth – the choir leader – attempts to reach Arthur and eventually does. Not only does he try to renew his relationship with his son but he also agrees to sing in the choir.
Elizabeth is rather patronising with the members of the choir. and indeed with Arthur. She is beautiful and talented but keeps being dumped by boyfriends. This is what brings Arthur to open up to her, sing and rehearse songs with her. He even agrees to sing solo in the choir competition finals. After a few moments of suspense when he does not turn up at the concert hall he arrives and sings in memory of his wife. Lullaby is so beautifully delivered that one of the judges wipes a tear running down his face and OAPZ wins the competition.
Up to now we can see that there is not much fun in the story or its treatment. No funny episodes or witty dialogue between these main protagonists. But we have still the choir OAPZ to consider. The Z we are told is to liven up OAP. But what function do the songs perform in the film? I had to resort to consulting my informers for their significance. I am told that there was a ‘ hard rock’ number, a ‘hip hop’ one, one ‘rock’ and two mainstream ‘pop’ ones. All date from the 80s but are still performed. When I asked my choir savvy informants (aged 50 and just over 40) they were surprised that the film had been described as a comedy/drama. They did not think that the choir factor was important and they did not think the old people were funny. They liked the film for its family drama aspect and cried and cried.
I differ. I think that the choice of songs to be sung by the choir was intended to be ‘funny’ because they are ‘inappropriate’ for the age of the singers. An old woman with wild hair playing drums, old people dressed in Heavy Metal gear or 60s tie/dye t-shirts, old people singing Let us talk about sex, these scenes are supposed to be funny. The songs with their emotional power and their ability to manipulate the audience are vital elements in the story. And yet the songs chosen for the choir demean the old people. Why, oh, why when old people are shown having fun do they have to become figures of fun? (see February post in my other blog: vwww.ageingageismdiary.wordpress.com). It can be argued that the songs were the songs of their youth but there is no sign that it was their own choice. In this realist film the choir does not convince. Personally I could not suspend disbelief when known actors had pride of place on the first row of the choir. Anne Reid (whose only throw away line was about sex (I expect this was a reference to her role in The Mother ), Ram John Holder (here is Desmond, Porkpie), Arthur Nightingale, Barry Martin. I found myself wondering what other actors I was not recognising. I also think that the chosen songs were devised to provide comedy and laughs to balance the two tear-jerker scenes that bookend the film.
As a family drama it is very effective in its first part with the way Marion coped with her terminal illness. But the conflict and its resolution between Arthur and his son resolution is not explored and the Eccleston character is in no way developed. Elizabeth as a choir leader is also superficial. She dictates and she has little interaction with the different members of the choir. As a film about the benefit of intergenerational friendship it is slight. The conversion – facilitated by Elizabeth and her choir – of Arthur “You know how I feel about enjoying things,” to “I can sing of my feelings and make you cry” is not convincing. As a film about an old couple it lacks depth as the woman dies halfway through. It would have worked as an advertisement directed at men to join a choir if the choir was not so embarrassing.
The film has been described as a tear-jerker but also feel-good entertainment to attract the grey pound. Paul Andrew Williams is quoted in http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-20727566 “Rather than it being a film for an older generation, I think it’s a film about two members of an older generation,” he says. “When we tested the film in America and England the largest demographic that liked it and would recommend it was under 30.” I wonder how the film will be received by a general audience. Box office returns will tell.