Monday 5 November 2012

Film Review: Song For Marion (Williams, 2012)

Does the mere idea of Anne Reid performing “Let’s Talk About Sex” send you into hysterics? If so, then Paul Andrew Williams’s Song for Marion (2012) is the film for you. Williams’s movie teams Terence Stamp and Vanessa Redgrave as Arthur and Marion, a long-married London couple with a divorced son (Christopher Eccleston) and a granddaughter. Temperamentally the two are opposites: Marion a vivacious and optimistic woman who’s intent on living life to the full despite her terminal cancer diagnosis; Arthur a cautious and closed-off man who’s fully embracing his reputation as a curmudgeon. Marion’s current interest is the singing group that she attends, a contemporary choir for the elderly that’s presided over by a young instructor, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Arthur opposes Marion’s involvement in the group, fearing it will further jeopardise his wife’s health, but the persistent Elizabeth wants Marion to participate in an upcoming competition, and decides that Arthur might just benefit from joining the choir too.

Criticising Song for Marion is a bit like scolding a puppy: Williams’s movie is so cutesy, so very eager to please, that you feel bad for pointing out its shortcomings. If only the film wasn’t so calculating, so obvious in its tear-jerk/uplift designs upon the audience, and if only it were made with more consistent craft and care. Very much in the feel-good, salvation-through-performance, working-class-whimsy mode of Brassed Off and The Full Monty, the film seems inspired by Stephen Walker's successful doc Young@Heart and it’s no surprise that it’s been picked up by the Weinsteins, with an eye on the post-Marigold Hotel “grey pound,” no doubt.

But the movie’s flaw - apart from its predictable plotting and reliance upon unconvincing conflicts - is that it never really communicates the protagonists’ pleasure in performance, or does much to individualise the supporting characters, as Dustin Hoffman’s superior and not-entirely-dissimilar Quartet does so successfully. Here they’re just an endlessly (and interchangeably) quipping, grinning, jigging bunch, and most of the song choices - Motörhead's "Ace of Spades" alongside the aforementioned Salt ‘n’ Pepa ditty - might have been selected expressly to make them a laughing stock. (Williams gets himself in a bind here: the film tuts over people’s tendency to laugh at the group while inviting the audience to do exactly that.) Complete with Arterton’s excruciating exhortations - “You guys are gangsta!”, “You sound like rock thunder!” - the rehearsal scenes are especially poor, but the director’s work is erratic to the very end. This is all the more frustrating because you sense a much classier movie struggling to get out at times. Williams comes up with a lovely, poignant final shot, for example, then wrecks the emotion with a sickly closing dedication “To family” and Celine Dion caterwauling over the credits. Amour  it ain't. (But else what is?)

Despite these lapses in judgement, it’s great to see Stamp and Redgrave - two bona fide 60s icons - sharing the screen and both of them come through with good performances. This is Stamp’s most substantial screen role since The Limey (1999) and - moving gradually from glower to twinkle - he underplays nicely to make Arthur’s awakening to life a lot less cloying than it might have been. Redgrave, whose vividness and eccentricities can make her seem too outsize for ordinary roles (cf. Driving Miss Daisy), modulates her performance effectively too. Marion and Arthur seem an unlikely pair, but the actors manage to suggest a genuine history together. (The only way Williams might have enhanced the cinephile delight is by casting Julie Christie as Marion, though perhaps that would have been a layer too many.)

In the film’s pivotal scene - and one of its few effective musical moments - Marion sings a quavering rendition of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” for Arthur, and Redgrave’s combination of vulnerability and eagerness is so touching that it transcends the corniness of the conception. As does a quiet scene between Arthur and Elizabeth that finally allows Arterton to express something other than irksome perkiness. Such scattered moments suggest, a little tantalisingly, just how much deeper Song for Marion might have gone, were it not so keen on its clunky, contrived conflicts or the allegedly hilarious spectacle of old people singing about sex.

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