"Stockholm Syndrome" is a phenomenon in which kidnappers mentally overpower their victims, eventually making the hostages side with their captors. "Stepmom Syndrome," named for the shameless 1998 tear-jerker starring Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts, occurs when manipulative movies pummel their audiences with so much emotional chicanery that viewers wind up reaching for their hankies, all the while knowing full well they've been played by a flimflamming director.
"Unfinished Song," a new British import from writer-director Paul Andrew Williams, delivers "Stepmom Syndrome" in spades. You roll your eyes at its obvious and repeated assaults on your tear ducts, and then a cancer-stricken Vanessa Redgrave plaintively sings "True Colors," and resistance becomes futile.
Redgrave stars as Marion, a loving wife and mother with late-stage cancer; despite her physical frailty, she still enjoys gathering with a group of singing senior citizens, under the direction of the endlessly perky Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), who guides her older charges through a repertoire that includes Salt-N-Pepa's "Let's Talk About Sex" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy."
(Any resemblance to the real-life septuagenarian singers in the 2007 documentary "Young@Heart," who tackled less matinee-friendly artists like Sonic Youth and Talking Heads, is no doubt purely intentional.)
Taking care of Marion is her cranky husband Arthur (Terence Stamp), who has no affection for his wife's musical pals and who wishes she would rest instead of traipsing about singing vintage hip-hop. (It's to him that Redgrave sings the moving cover of the Cyndi Lauper hit.)
Marion, it's no spoiler to reveal, dies, leaving Arthur even more bitter and more alone, particularly since Marion was the only one keeping the peace between Arthur and their son James (Christohper Eccleston), who has an adorable daughter (played by Orla Hill) because, of course, movies like this always need a cute kid who can zero in on a crusty old man's sweet spot.
Arthur begrudgingly opens up to Elizabeth, and joins the group, and goes to the big singing competition, and … well, let's just say "Unfinished Song" isn't out to surprise anyone. It's a comfy tea cozy of a grandma movie -- not that there's anything wrong with that, but why be "Calendar Girls" when you can be "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"?
Williams fills his screenplay with nails that he can then hammer for the rest of the running time, so whether it's dying wife/mum/grandma or strained father-son relations that bring you to tears, the movie keeps pummeling you until you produce them. If you can get through Redgrave and Stamp's solo numbers with dry eyes, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.
Both actors elevate the material; watching them turn these old-folks clichés into living, breathing, singing people is akin to seeing four-star chefs make chateaubriand out of Spam. That alchemy alone may make "Unfinished Song" worth a look; just know up front that you're committing to an album that's only got one or two worthwhile singles.