2016, R, 135 min. Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Jack Greenlees, Ron Donachie, Daniela Nardini, Ian Pirie, Douglas Rankine, Simon Tait.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 3, 2016
Terence Davies, a filmmaker best known for his autobiographical and impressionistic memory pieces about life in postwar England (The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives being real standouts), has taken to literary adaptations of late (Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea among them). He adapted Sunset Song from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel. A widely beloved Scottish work, Sunset Song addresses rural life in northeastern Scotland during the early decades of the 20th century as the old ways were fading – agriculturally, domestically, and politically. All this is seen through the life passage of a young woman named Chris Guthrie.
As played by model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn, Chris’ undimmed beauty may be a bit too luminous for a character whose life is as rugged as hers, but her beauty becomes a beacon in the film’s otherwise drab and dreary interiors. Outside lie the verdant but rocky hills – a landscape that burrows deep into Chris’ soul, instilling the kind of passion for her homestead that rivals that of Scarlett O’Hara’s for Tara. Inside, life appears harsh and unilluminated as the Guthrie family messily grapples with their ill-tempered, sexually rapacious, and unyielding patriarch John (Peter Mullan, fearsomely brilliant). After tragedy befalls the farming family and John’s beatings have driven away his eldest son, Chris subsumes her own desires to pursue a teaching career (an early scene reveals that she was the smartest girl in her class) in order to fulfill the needs of her family. Her sunny demeanor is overtaken by dutiful resignation. Marriage, eventually, offers a momentary bright spell for Chris amid all the infanticide, patricide, and other dark yet frank episodes. Then World War I intervenes to spoil her matrimonial bliss; Chris becomes not a widow but the victim of a new kind of hell.
Sunset Song is both gratifying and stultifying. At first, the Guthrie family seems almost too severe and disturbing to keep company with for another two hours. But by the half-hour mark, it becomes evident that this will be Chris’ story and that the narrative’s themes and ideas are distinctive and enticing. Yet like the film’s lush exteriors and dark interiors, the story alternates between passages that are either lifeless or electrifying. There is a sense that much has been truncated from the saga in order to fit into 135 minutes, and sometimes dramatic scenes can appear to land prematurely. English subtitles are wisely employed to help the viewer crack the thick Scottish accents that make heavy use of colloquialisms. However, the use of the same colloquial terms in the subtitles often impedes their intended clarity for the general viewer. Sunset Song is not one of Davies’ most expressive or artistically successful films, but I’m very glad for the opportunity to have made the acquaintance of Chris Guthrie.