Sunset Song, Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s WWI-era novel of the same name, is a long-gestating passion project that appears to have over the years of development near calcified in the mind of the filmmaker. A Scottish coming-of-age tragedy about young farmer’s daughter Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), Sunset Song is visually striking and meticulous about period detail, as indeed Davies’ movies often are. But as in his previous misfire, The Neon Bible, both the director’s reverence for the written material and his distaste for spontaneity proves stultifying in the film version.
Too often the film—particularly in its early scenes—feels less like the aching drama it should be, more like a stale tour of some dour museum. Grim events unfold episodically (a rape, a suicide, a paralyzing stroke) and actors move like automata, with only the occasional performer, like Mark Bonnar’s Kaiser-hating Reverend, hinting at signs of life. Even the great Peter Mullan is on his own kind of horrible autopilot, summoning the inner monster he’s deployed so many times before to play Chris’s brutal father, who beats his brood and forces his too-old wife to bear yet more of his petrified children.
Agyness Deyn at least proves her mettle in the lead, hopefully preventing critics from ever again disparagingly referring to her as a “model-turned-actress.” She can be agonizingly raw in the film’s bleakest moments, breaking down when realizing her sorry lot or finally summoning the strength to stand up to the insistently rash and frequently cruel men in her life. It’s Kevin Guthrie as Chris’s beau Ewan, though, who’s the revelation. An hour spent with Guthrie, first compellingly decent then frighteningly volatile as a simple farmer spoiled by the Great War, and you’re regretting his Ewan couldn’t have been more of a focus, that there wasn’t more of him and less of Chris’s relentlessly sour family life dominating the film’s first half.
Together with Deyn, her character stunned out of despair by sudden romance with the shyly charming Ewan, Guthrie’s boyish energy helps lift the film out of its soporific default in the second act. Though it’s only fleeting, Chris and Ewan’s courtship and subsequent marriage offers a sweet, brief respite from the sinking feeling that naught in Davies’ Scotland may ever be well. Then, the pleasantries over, the film slips into an almost-parody of arthouse miserablism once more.
As Ewan returns home from combat transformed into a new version of Chris’s abusive father, demanding sex and hot supper as the husband’s right, this frequently unfeeling film at last elicits some emotion, even if the sensation is one of overpowering gloominess. Deyn’s third-person voiceover (spoken with a passion too often missing from the story it narrates) returns, signalling Chris’s descent back into isolation as Davies once more comes to wallow in his characters’ suffering.
Except for an unexpected and moving stop-off in war-torn France, Sunset Song rarely leaves the lonely Guthrie farmstead, a location Davies and his cinematographer Michael McDonough mine for gorgeous imagery. Pictures captured of the Scottish (as well as Luxembourg and New Zealand, where the film was also shot) countryside can appear almost unbelievably grand. Heavy clouds linger on the horizon, as a procession of singing churchgoers saunter through a golden field to the local place of worship; Chris gazes into an Aberdeenshire lake polished as glass, reflecting the verdant surrounding landscape like a mirror.
Shots of swaying wheat fields at magic hour will prompt comparisons with Terence Malick, but Davies has an altogether different relationship with nature. Where Malick is obsessed by its shocking and sometimes violent beauty, Davies looks upon the natural world with an immense sadness and longing, the outdoors an idealized escape from the constant brutality of man and his machinations. Nature in Sunset Song acts as a retreat for us viewers as much as it does for Chris, offering a dreamy alternative to Davies’ oppressive central philosophy, that mere crumbs of happiness are all we ought hope for in this life.
Director: Terence Davies
Writer: Terence Davies; Lewis Grassic Gibbon (novel)
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan, Ian Pirie, Mark Bonnar
Release Date: May 13, 2016