Sunset Song – Film Review by Pat V
Director: Terence Davies
Writers: Lewis Grassic Gibbon (novel), Terence Davies (screenplay)
Stars: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
In Sunset Song, based on the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Terence Davies has created a visually stunning and emotionally complex film showing the life of Chris Guthrie, a young woman living in Kinraddie, in North-East Scotland, in the years leading to, and including, the First World War. The film depicts the life of a farming community, focusing on the Guthrie family and in particular on Chris, the only daughter, (played by Agyness Deyn) who grows from a frightened teenager into a strong, independent woman.
When we first meet her, Chris is living with her family controlled with an iron fist by her father (played brilliantly by Peter Mullan), a religious fanatic and domestic bully. She is spared the brutality he inflicts on his wife and eldest son as he seems to recognise in her the potential for a better life and she is allowed continue her studies to become a teacher. However, circumstances change and her life takes a different course.
The plot follows simple lines and the action is set completely in the Guthrie’s house and surrounding farms (apart from a short and moving interlude at the Front). Though during the film we see scenes of marital rape, physical violence, war and the suggestion of incest, this is NOT an action movie. Like Davies’ recent films, The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea, the pace here is slow and his preoccupation seems to be to create exquisite visual tableaux and to communicate the mood of the times rather than just tell a story.
The literary source of the work is emphasised by his attention to the smallest visual detail in every shot and in the voiceovers, narrated by Chris, where the story is progressed and where she talks of the transience of everything: love, happiness, life itself, everything apart from the land. The land, we are told, will always endure though civilisations disappear and in his elegiac shots of wheat fields, snow storms and the dramatic landscape of Aberdeenshire, Davies underlines this point.
The lush and sometimes romantic depiction of nature contrasts dramatically with the struggles and often brutal quality of Chris’ life but from the opening shots we can see that she finds solace and meaning from the land she inhabits.
Agyness Deyn who, in this movie, looks strikingly like a young Isabella Rossellini, gives a strong performance though she does not entirely convince as a teenager. Her suitor, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) is flawless throughout from his shy tentative approaches at the start to his more dramatic outbursts later in their relationship. There are no weak performances in the film, the most memorable being the downtrodden Mrs. Guthrie (Daniela Nardini) and Auntie Janet (Linda Duncan McLaughlin) whose acid quips give some light relief.
Otherwise there is little lightness or humour in Davies’ Kinraddie, an exception being the awful French lesson at the start of the film. The pace is occasionally lugubrious rather than slow and is not helped by the maudlin choral music which seems intrusive and heavy-handed.
There are some scenes towards the end that seem out of kilter with what came before but overall Davies presents us with a film which is very beautiful to watch and performances that are moving and memorable.