Movie review: Sunset Song
English filmmaker Terence Davies creates a sad and lovely portrait, in light and shadow, of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood on the eve of the First World War
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
Directed by: Terence Davies
Running time: 135 minutes
By Jay Stone
The English filmmaker Terence Davies — a man of great sensitivity and pitiless self-laceration — has said that some people compare his movies to watching paint dry. That is not entirely true, but there is something of the oil and canvas in Sunset Song, a sad and beautiful-looking film about a young woman’s life in Scotland in the years around the First World War. Sunset Song is a gorgeous picture whose green misty landscapes and dim, plainspoken interiors evoke something of Vermeer. Davies works in light and shadow, both physically and emotionally, and the shades that creep across the rooms and faces in Sunset Song are likely to break your heart with their beauty and sense of lost possibility.
Not a barrel of laughs, then, but a remarkable film by a director whose previous work (which also includes Distant Voices, Still Lives, and House of Mirth) is a similar compendium of broken youth, harsh judgment and not enough money. Sunset Song is a movie about the loss and weariness of ordinary lives, and also about the eternal countryside where they grind out their various joys and miseries.
It stars former model Agyness Deyn, deglamorized into a thin, handsome farm girl named Chris Guthrie, a woman on the very cusp of allure. It’s an allure tinged with pessimism: “Lovely things do not endure, and are lovelier for that,” she says, an aphorism that pretty well expresses the film’s fundamentalist rejection of joy.
Chris is a teenager with a sharp mind and an adult’s sense of responsibility, whose promise is being swallowed up in her harsh home. Her father (Peter Mullan, who specializes in roles as pitiless tyrants) rules with a leather strap and an unbending sense of religion, and there are several brutal scenes of Chris’s brother Will (Jack Greenlees) being beaten for such transgressions as taking the Lord’s name in vain because he said to his horse, “Move over, Jehovah.” Their mother (Daniela Nardini) is lost in the brutality of her marriage. “When the time comes, there’s no one to stand up for you,” she says, having been coerced into giving painful birth — we sit in the under-furnished dining room and hear the screams from the upstairs bedroom — to far too many children.
Chris hopes to be rescued from her life by Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie) a sweet-natured neighbor who wants to marry her. But the story does take place on the eve of the First World War, an event that includes all the cinematic accouterments — those familiar shouted cheers from passing men about the glory about to engulf Scotland — of that disaster.
The movie, based on a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, does not add much to what we know about such history, despite a breathtaking tracking shot near the end that takes us across the muddy fiasco of no-man’s land. In many ways it’s like a filmed play — perhaps something by Thomas Hardy — but with landscapes. Much of the movie takes place in the same downstairs rooms of the Guthrie farmhouse, where candles shine oblique light across the faces of hard-working, unhappy people. The fields, when we see them, are sometimes stunning — among the memorable scenes composed by cinematographer Michael McDonough are the meeting of Chris and Ewan amid a flock of cream-coloured sheep — and sometimes almost hopeless. Watching Chris and Will running behind their father’s primitive haying machine, gathering sheaves by hand, is a dark instruction in a life of dreary toil.
What rescues the mood is Chris’s understanding and optimism. The movie is partly told through her voice-overs as she comes to understand that she will endure in the same way that the country will endure. Beautifully composed and told with grave restraint, it’s a rewarding film for those with the patience to view it. It’s like watching hope dry.
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