Published Sep 14, 2015Shortly after Terence Davies' superlative adaptation of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth was released, he planned to film Lewis Grassic Gibbon's pivotal Scottish novel, Sunset Song. Thematically and superficially, these texts share similarities — both feature women suffering socially imposed, gender- and/or class-based emotional hardship — suggesting a new chapter of exploration in the celebrated director's career, marking a turn from the autobiographical coming-of-age stories (The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives) that earned him such acclaim roughly two decades ago.
When funding for Sunset Song couldn't be secured, the director took a break from filmmaking — save the 2008 documentary, Of Time and the City — before adapting Terence Ratigan's Deep Blue Sea, which, again, featured a woman suffering a socially (and religiously) prescribed martyrdom for daring to indulge in her own desires. Though a unique work unto itself, it was well-aligned with this long-delayed adaptation of Sunset Song, which retains a classicist, albeit romanticized, vision of film, capturing the effects the modernization on different classes in the early 20th Century while itself retaining the sort of formal, "classic" style and aesthetic of past cinema.
Quite faithfully, the film starts in early 1900s Scotland with Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the daughter of a Scottish farmer, demonstrating an academic aptitude beyond that of her schoolmates. When her mother kills herself and the new set of twins that put her over the edge, the younger children go to Aberdeen to live with relatives, while Chris and her brother Will (Jack Greenlees) stay to help their father (Peter Mullan) look after the farm. When Will gets married and leaves, it's left to Chris to take care of her father and — when he falls ill — the farm.
In part, this turn of the century narrative details the obligations and external influence imposed on Chris. Though it's ultimately her decision to run the farm rather than flee to the city to pursue a job teaching, her marriage to Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie) that solidifies it. While Chris remains strong through these many hardships, still believing in the romance of marriage and love despite suffering from familial tragedy, there's a Trial of Job dynamic to the endless series of misfortunes that surmount. Every time she finds peace and equilibrium, the world throws another curveball, such as the war that Ewan is forced to fight in, which leaves Chris to worry if he'll come home and in what condition he might return in if he does.
Davies, whose measured pace and immaculate use of framing, enhances the unspoken feelings with visuals. Whether a composition is slowly immersed in light, denoting a change or metaphorical illumination, or the passage of time is communicated with a slow pan and a shift in visual texture, he's layering the images with complex emotional consideration. How Chris looks at her own body and interprets her own sexuality early on — in the shadows with only the light of a lantern — represents her own nascent curiosity about her own appeal, just as a later funeral scene in a church separates the planes of churchgoers and the coffin, giving each their own degree of clarity.
This attention to detail is remarkable for its adherence to the beauty and simplicity of the cinematic form. Davies is creating this world using only the basic tools of cinema, removed from the world of visual effects and excess stylization. It aids in mirroring the thematic trajectory of the text, which is ultimately a look at the death of an era (the influence the war had on the common people), by utilizing the techniques available to classic films. Though Chris ultimately suffers tragedy, one that is summarized with startling acuity in the final moments of Sunset Song in both words and photography, Davies finds the beauty in the story and its representation of what has been lost in the world of filmmaking.
The real achievement here, beyond telling a moving story that's only slightly hindered by Deyn's occasionally less than nuanced portrayal of Chris Guthrie, is melding form and content in a thought-provoking way. Sunset Song isn't just a touching movie; it's also a work with some historical context and consideration, having a dialogue about the art of movie-making in addition to its examination of the role of women in the early 20th Century. (Hurricane Films)