Terence Davies’ adaptation of Sunset Song is full of quiet and subtle greatness, may be a bit old fashioned, but that is exactly what the film is going for.
Based on the novel of the same name, Sunset Song takes place in the early 1900’s and follows a young girl, Chris, as she navigates her few relationships in rural northern Scotland. What starts as an overstuffed family home (Mom, Dad, lots of brothers) ultimately ends up with just Chris and her future as an independent woman of the time.
Davies elegantly moves his film through time. Picking up when Chris is just a teenager, she is a smart, determined and curious woman who is bound by the social constraints of the time. The idea of how little is changing over these large chunks of time is depressing and Davies never lets you forget how simply large chucks of these people’s lives are gone in a blink. A whole year might pass by between scenes and Davies, or a simple pan around the room, but Davies never loses his audience along the way. The director and his cinematographer, Michael McDonough, beautifully photograph Chris, her farm and the Scottish countryside, you just want to roll around in that wheat. The lighting is exquisite as well, but even with all of these technical highlights the film doesn’t feel new. It feels appropriately old and lived in. I guess that means we need to throw some praise at the production team as well, but the look of the film just feels authentic for the time period we are in.
The theme of female oppression and the culture of control run throughout the film, and I think one of the things I wish we got a bit more of was Chris pushing back against it. The war torn romance of the third act ends up being the weakest element of the film, mostly because it takes a lot of Chris’ power out from under her. Yes, she is young and has a future in front of her yet, but I was reading her as being so independent that I didn’t really register her need for this supposed great love. Ewan seems like a decent enough guy, until he isn’t, and that isn’t part is what threw me off when it came to Chris’ reactions to him. I couldn’t buy it.
Everything that comes before this was working on me though, especially the stuff with Chris’ father and her sexual awakening. The film doesn’t treat that awakening crudely, it’s mostly a very loving and supporting section of the film, but I love that it wasn’t afraid to show the dangers of such a beauty coming of age in the wrong time period. Peter Mullan is terrifying and intense as Chris’ father, you can’t look away from him even when he disgusts you. I always react poorly to the self-righteous religious types and Mullan got me fired up in all the ways you should be. Chris’ relationship with her brother might be a bit under explored, but you also have to appreciate the honesty of the times in how people can leave your life in nearly a moment’s notice. Davies doesn’t shy away from the hardships of this time and place, making Chris’ rise in it all the more impressive; even if you wish she might have been a bit stronger.
Maybe that is the one hitch in Agyness Deyn’s portrayal of Chris. Deyn has the gorgeous look for the part, but there might be one or two gaps in the mind that is supposed to be in the performance. Deyn is fierce when she needs to be, soft and delicate too, but there are a couple of beats in the film that fall flat because I couldn’t buy her logic. She may play things just a bit too melodramatic for the part at times, especially in her big emotional scenes. Deyn is mostly very good, but I feel like Davies might have ended up with a lead that was just a smidge in over her head. Kevin Guthrie might be just a bit too sad eyed as well as Ewan, but we might also just not get to know him well enough to have a great assessment of him. His big moment in the end, I didn’t buy it, and I don’t know who is to blame there; the actor or the adaptation.
Sunset Song is a beautifully made film that recreates this Scottish era with intricate detail. The characters at the center might feel a tad underdeveloped, but Davies is mostly doing a great job at keeping them and their story compelling. I think it runs a bit out of steam in the end, but anyone that is a fan of period pieces doesn’t want to miss this. The Scottish history at the turn of the twentieth century is a time I’ve never seen in a film and I was mostly riveted by Davies representation of it.