Sunset Song sounds unbearably quaint: the title is saccharine and practically nonsensical, and the trailer doesn’t help – all gold scroll-like font, tinkling music and a prettification of the Scottish countryside. Both belie the film’s real beauty and force.
Terence Davies’s film is an adaptation of a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (who we have to thank for the awful title), which deals with knotty themes: national identity, the effect of the First World War on small rural communities, and the realities of women’s experiences in those communities at the turn of the twentieth century. They are all treated by Davies with a disarming power and naturalness, as well as a stark refusal to bend to the kind of sentimentality the film’s trailer implies.
Agyness Deyn plays Chris Guthrie of The Mearns (now Aberdeenshire), the young woman Sunset Song centres around. It’s a coming-of-age tale in which we see her wrestle with adulthood: losing family members; having to live with, and later care for, a father tyrannical to the point of blind evil; and marrying under the approaching shadow of the war. But Davies doesn’t quite make Deyn’s role, in which she excels, anchor the film. Chris is a more naturally-framed character: she is both part of a larger picture of a community and its land, and an individual with individual struggles, in which we can’t help but be fully, emotionally invested: her portrayal is a sensitive one, made more impressive by her character’s introspective qualities and the whole film’s general lack of demonstrativeness: we are not told what to feel, even in the most striking and shocking of the film’s events, of which there are many.
Davies depicts some incidents with little mercy; even more brave, and more unsettling for the spectator, is that he makes these moments totally captivating, and even beautiful. He does not shy away from the grotesque, riveting contortions of Chris’s father (Peter Mullan’s performance throughout is as horrifyingly perfect as you’d expect) in the grips of a stroke after being knocked to the ground, or from the uncannily warm light in the stables as the same man, in more able days, repeatedly whips his son. In both scenes the camera is static, daring us to watch, creating a disturbing mix of beauty and pain.
There is an almost luxurious quality to the way light and the framing of scenes is used, but it doesn’t feel indulgent or over-stylised – it’s a vital film, even, or because, there is so much death in it. Life has an essential quality to it here, because being a farmer in the early 1900s was (newsflash) incredibly hard: it’s presented as an arduous, precarious job. Sunset Song isn’t unstintingly bleak though – Davies infuses humour into a multitude of scenes, in chats about the war or in children laughing in the face of their father’s tyranny.
Life just happens: and this is perhaps where the film takes its biggest risk, as there is no real pace to speak of. After all the praise, there’s a possibility you may well be monumentally bored by Sunset Song: too much of the everyday, perhaps. But it’s gladdening to watch a film which isn’t contrived, and doesn’t try to make the ordinary extraordinary; it leaves it ordinary, finds the beauty there, and is all the more meaningful for it.
Words by Charlotte Palmer