Sunset Song” is a beautiful film, sumptuous but with a wind-swept harshness befitting the asperous Scottish landscapes of the movie’s setting. Director Terence Davies and his DP Michael McDonough set gorgeous amber-hued exteriors (filmed in 65mm) against gloomy, constricted interiors (shot on digital video). The juxtaposition underlines one of the story’s central themes, the contrast between the beautiful lives we want and the narrow, unhappy lives we end up living.
I mention “Sunset Song”’s visuals upfront because the film is worth seeing—and worth seeing on as big a screen as possible—for its images alone. But the rest of the film, I must admit, is a mixed bag. Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel of the same name, which is apparently quite popular in Scotland, though not terribly well-known in the rest of the world, covers a tumultuous six years in the life of a young woman named Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who comes of age in the Scottish Highlands in the 1910s, contending with a parade of horribles, including her mother’s suicide, her father’s abuse of her beloved brother, and her husband joining up to fight in the First World War. The last of these comes as something of a surprise. It can be easy to forget that history exists in this remote locale.
As adapted by Davies, the narrative is disjointed and episodic, as if Davies made sure to include all the novel’s highs and lows but cut out everything that held them together. Davies is too busy trying to overwhelm us with emotion that he never gives the narrative space to breathe. The end result is a frustrating mixture of the overwrought and the underplayed. The compilation of extreme emotions has often been Davies’ stylistic MO—he is primarily a director of moments; “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes” are essentially collections of remembrances rather than conventional narratives—but the approach is ill-suited to a story of this scope.
Much of the film’s emotional weight is placed on the shoulders of Deyn, who carries it admirably, with a mixture of resilience and vulnerability. Unfortunately, Davies pushes her to periphery for much of the film’s first half, focusing instead on her abusive father (Peter Mullan), who brutally whips his son for minor infractions. The imperious patriarch has become something of a cliche in British cinema, but it is a signature figure in Davies’ cinema—the savage father played by Pete Postlethwaite in “Distant Voices, Still Lives” was based on Davies’ own abusive dad. Davies understandably resists sentimentalizing abusive fathers, but in doing so Mullan’s character becomes vague, an abstract horror rather than an actual human being. But even here Davies undeniable talent shines through in a scene where Chris cradles her brother in her arms, caressing the lash marks on his back. The image is moving, beautiful, and more than a little incestuous. It is, in other words, Davies at his absolute best.
But moments like these, sublime as they are, do not a gripping narrative make. And Davies’ attempt at persistent emotional reverie has the effect of downplaying the story’s political resonances. There are strands of anti-war sentiment, socialism, and nationalism threaded into the narrative—the novel is reportedly Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon’s favorite book—but Davies mostly leaves these dangling. Davies, an Englishman, seems to have tapped Gibbon’s novel for its resonance to his own personal history rather than for its broader nationalistic themes. Perhaps the strongest thread in the film is its sense of place, its conviction that an individual’s history can become interlocked with the land she inhabits. Davies explored his own deep relationship to a place, his hometown of Liverpool, in the essayistic “Of Time and the City.” In its more potent moments, when the camera catches the land in just right light, Davies does the same for Chris in “Sunset Song.” The narrative clunkies falls away, and we understand, on an elemental, purely visual level, what Chris tells us in voiceover: “Nothing endured but the land.” And “she felt in the gloaming, that she was the land.”