|'The story is variously described as a coming of age drama, but that only tells half of the story. This is a tale interwoven with the harshness and the beauty of the Scottish landscape; the warmth of families, the danger of a haunting storm.'|
Adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic (and wonderful) novel, Terence Davies' Sunset Song is both a delightful realisation and something which falls into some of the obvious traps of its source. That it's here though in the current film environment is a bit of a wonder. Davies seems to be continuing to pride himself on tackling challenging material, without obvious 'fashionable' appeal nor the correct budgetary price point for current funding tastes. His next production, A Quiet Passion, is a biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson, which runs to over two hours and has little true 'star power'.
Long may he continue in such ventures. Sunset Song, as per the source, tells the story of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), resident of a small Scottish farm with, throughout the course of the film, various members of family. During the course of the story Chris encounters a number of changes, losses and hardships, as per par for the course of rural Scotland in the early 1900s. The story is variously described as a coming of age drama, but that only tells half of the story. This is a tale interwoven with the harshness and the beauty of the Scottish landscape; the warmth of families, the danger of a haunting storm.
That balance is within Gibbon's prose and Davies borrows it with abandon. The sweetness of the language balances the sour notes of the plot; the opening of the film is like a beautiful, lyrical nightmare. Early on in the film Chris' younger brother announces the arrival of the doctor and Davies shoots it echoing over the mountains, like the proclamation of a spirit by the children from Haneke's The White Ribbon.
The constant through-line in the film, no matter whether Davies is going extremely lyrical or a bit more pragmatic, is Chris. She is one of the foremast characters of British literature; a heroine with oomph, but also character and developed direction; agency personified. Deyn is perfect. Chris feels vulnerable, as she should, but throughout the trauma you never feel as though she does not have the power to pull through. Davies is wise to the character's power. Little moments, such as her offering her hand to love interest Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), rather than the other way around, are spot on.
Davies too shoots with a respect for the gorgeous landscape but with a recognition that Chris is the way to connect with it. Unlike close recent genre cousin Far From The Madding Crowd, Sunset Song lives in shots of people; in the mid-range and close-up. There's barely a shot of a landscape without a character creeping in at some point. A shot in a church late on almost magnetically gravitates towards the priest in the pulpit, heading down the aisle before veering left. It's the perfect depiction of Davies' interest in character over scenery.
But those obvious traps. In a film so honest, quite how Davies manages to fall into cheese at at least two moments is hard to fully understand. The birth of a baby and the announcement of war are handled with all the tenderness of pruning rose bushes with chainsaws. There's also a really grand struggle with a late character change in Ewan too. It doesn't entirely work on a character basis in the novel either, but on film it really doesn't work. A lot here does though. On many an occasion it is a near note-perfect, sweeping marvel.