SONG FOR MARION. Starring: Terence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave, Gemma Arterton, and Christopher Eccleston. Directed by Paul Andrew Williams. Rated PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 94 min.
This British production is something of a cross between “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” (2012), and “Quartet” (2012) in non-operatic mode, and shares some of the simple pleasures of “Brassed Off” (1996).
A terminally-ill woman, Marion Harris (Vanessa Redgrave), is married in a loving relationship to a grumpy husband, Arthur (Terence Stamp), and they have been married for a long time. She is a member of a senor citizens’, local rock-and-pop choir, and continues to participate in the group despite her illness. The group unconventionally sings pop, and is an enormous source of joy and comfort to Marion. In order to offer her solace, the cheery director of the choir, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), comes to the home of Marion and Arthur, with some of the group to sing for them. Marion is delighted. Arthur is livid and not at all welcoming.
Despite serious misgivings, Arthur agrees to take the place in the choir of his wife. The choir is amateur, sings off-key, and often doesn’t select the kind of material that suits them. But Arthur knows that the choir has offered great pleasure to Marion. It has given her independence and joy, and, with her passing, Arthur must learn what it is that gave Marion that pleasure, and what that now means to him.
Arthur’s involvement in the choir leads him on a journey of self-discovery and redemption that prepares him for life after Marion. First, he has to cope with having to sing songs he doesn’t like, and then he has to reach out to choir members around him, who offer him sympathy he thinks he doesn’t want. His journey of discovery leads him out of misery and bitterness, which needs to happen for him to cope. To make things extra hard for Arthur, he is alienated from his son, James (Christopher Eccleston), and his relationship to James worsened as Marion’s sickness took its toll.
Marion is ebullient, generous, and outgoing, and Arthur is gruff, awkward, and has great difficulty in showing his feelings. He finds it very difficult to take his wife’s place, and he risks humiliation in front of the other members of the singing group, and especially after Marion has gone. But they know he was devoted to Marion, and she to him, and Arthur has their respect.
This is a movie that shamefully tears at the heart strings. The movie ends with a heart-wrenching on-stage solo by Arthur, who has become a fully committed member of his past wife’s choir. He sings to his audience in a choir-competition, giving meaning to the film’s title, to celebrate Marion’s devotion to him and to the group she loved.
Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave are seasoned performers. They occupy their roles with sensitivity and tenderness and despite the movie’s sentimental and predictable plot, they quickly get the viewer emotionally on side. It is the acting of Stamp and Redgrave that carries the day, but there is also a very effective performance by Eccleston, who is Arthur’s conflicted son, whose strained relationship with his father is captured compellingly.
This is a movie that has been made to put grey power on cinema seats. The film doesn’t have the sophistication, or the finesse, of “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” or “Quartet”, but it communicates the message powerfully and simply that every stage of life should be celebrated, and that ageing is a time of life that can create its own rich rewards.
The movie only touches superficially on the force of music, but it is very enjoyable (if “enjoyment” is the right word). A handkerchief is needed on this film, for it conveys the message tenderly that love and devotion can exist in the face of losing the person you love the most.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out April 25th 2013.