Not only is it well worth seeing, but I can’t imagine anyone other than Davies making this particular film.
Terence Davies has not directed many movies over his career (eight or nine features, depending on how you count), but what his resumé may be lacking in quantity is certainly made up for by the quality and individuality of his films. Sunset Song, based on a well-known Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is no exception—not only is it well worth seeing, but I can’t imagine anyone other than Davies making this particular film.
If I had to sum up Sunset Song in a few words, it would be “the contrast between the beauty of the Scottish countryside and the hard lives of the people who work the land.” The problem is that that description could apply equally well to a terribly clichéd historical heritage television style romance, while what is most impressive about Davies’ adaptation of this material (he wrote the screenplay as well as directing) is that he avoids the obvious clichés every time and adopts an elliptical, evocative method of presentation that values emotional truths over straightforward storytelling.
Chris Guthrie (a luminous Agyness Deyn, in her first leading role), the eldest daughter of a farm family in northeast Scotland, dreams of a bigger life than is possible on her family’s small plot of land, and it seems they may come true when she is granted a bursary for further education. In the meantime, her home life is dominated by her brutal father (Peter Mullan, who has made a specialty of these types of roles), who beats the children (including Chris’ grown brother, played by Jack Greenlees) without mercy and treats his wife (Daniela Nardini) with less respect than he might grant a farm animal. In a later scene he states to Chris that he owns her and can with her what he will, which pretty much expresses the lack of restraints on the power of the male head of a household in the early 20th century. Her mother advises Chris that “You’ll need to face men for yourself. When the time comes, there’s no one can stand and help you,” words that prove prophetic later in the film.
Chris sometimes narrates her own story in the third person, which gives us access to thoughts and feelings that might be difficult to express visually. It also acts as a distancing device, which helps prevent the film from becoming a simple problem drama or a rustic soap opera. Life may be hard for Chris and her family, but it is also beautiful, and she is able to take the best from her experiences and not fret over the obvious wrongs she and others suffer or dwell on the might-have-beens that can poison enjoyment of even the most blessed life.
Sunset Song would not work without the stunning cinematography of Michael McDonough, who turns the wheat fields and candlelit interiors of the Guthrie home into living paintings. Over the course of the film, Chris realizes she is one with this land—while her mother may pine for Aberdeen and her brother depart for South America, Chris could never be truly happy anywhere else—and McDonough makes us see its harsh beauty through her eyes. Music also plays a key role in conveying Davies’ vision, and Gast Waltzing’s score and choices for popular music are not always strictly from the time and place of the story but are always appropriate in underlining the meaning of a scene. | Sarah Boslaugh