Director(s): Terence Davies
Writer(s): Terence Davies
Cast: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Jack Greenlees, Kevin Guthrie, Daniela Nardini, Ian Pirie and Douglas Rankine
Reviewed by: Ian Evans on
Release Date(s)May 20, 2016 - Wide
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Terence Davies’ Sunset Song is an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s celebrated 1932 novel about the sweeping changes that came to the tough Scottish countryside in the years leading up to World War One. Beautiful to look at, with shots by cinematographer Michael McDonough that are as evocative as a painting, the story is ultimately let down by a languorous pace and a script by Davies that appears to skim over the topics of such a tumultuous time.
Model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn plays Chris Guthrie, a young woman who aims to be a teacher but still finds herself connected to the land her family works, an idea we first see as Chris rises from a golden ocean of grain like a Scottish Aphrodite. While she studies and dreams of books, her home life is hard. Her father, John (Peter Mullan) is a harsh, sadistic and pious man, who dishes out violent beatings to his oldest son, Will (Jack Greenlees), as easily as he has a drink with the lads on New Year’s. The family matriarch, Jean (Daniela Nardini), physically and mentally weakened by repeated pregnancies, kills herself and her newborn twins after discovering she is pregnant yet again. The two youngest boys go off with an aunt. Will marries and emigrates to Argentina, leaving Chris to deal with the brutal demands of their father. When events finally leave Chris on her own, she quickly falls in love with and marries Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), just as the distant drums of war signal upheaval for a way of life and a whole generation.
I have to admit to having a mental tug-of-war watching this film. As mentioned, the cinematography is stunning and we can understand the attachment Chris has to the land of her birth. The pace is also evocative of the era and reminds us that there was a time when there weren’t gadgets and distractions to fill up each waking moment. However, the pacing is also at odds with the sheer volume of changes the world was going through. The film touches upon mechanization and its effect on the agrarian workforce, the rise of socialism, changes in patriarchal family structures, global war and post-traumatic stress disorder. But it touches upon them as gently as Chris might caress the tops of a wheat field. We get one scene showing a new piece of farm equipment which is never seen again. Another character mentions the dream of socialist equality in one sentence, never to touch upon it later in the film. These big issues are given short shrift, but we get a long segment of Will putting his shirt and suspenders back on after a beating and a tracking shot during a church hymn that goes on so long you could have a leisurely drink of Glenlivet during it. It’s a bit of a cinematic Emperor’s New Clothes. The whole epic feel of the cinematography makes us feel “this is important” but upon reflection there’s very little there.
Agyness Deyn glows as golden as the fields she lies in, but her Chris often seems to be observing the sea change around her rather than participating in it. We occasionally get long narrative voiceovers that tell us what she’s feeling rather than seeing it. When her husband returns on leave and comments on her detached behaviour, I couldn’t help but agree with him. His brutal actions finally ignites her strength physically and it’s this determination and will I would have liked to have seen earlier in her performance. An emotional outburst near the end is Deyn’s shining moment.
Peter Mullan captures the horrific father well and walks the line of a man who is both pious and cruel. Sadly, Jack Greenlees’ Will is not given too much to do beyond taking his father’s beatings and expressing hatred for the family patriarch. Kevin Guthrie does well as Ewan, capturing both the hopeful man in love with Chris and the broken man destroyed by a brutal conflict. Supporting characters, especially Ian Pirie’s Chae and Douglas Rankine’s Long Rob, show a people with the fortitude and loyalty needed to survive in the harsh rural conditions.
I wanted to love Sunset Song, and I almost did, but ultimately it fell short for me.
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