For years I have been sucked into watching a lot of British, Irish and Scottish television and movies, and for a while being some of the better products being produced internationally. Then last year there were a couple of films taking place around the time of the first World War: Testament of Youth, with last year’s breakthrough star Alicia Vikander; and Jimmy’s Hall, a film from this year’s Palme d’Or winner Ken Loach. While Testament of Youth’s melodrama really bogged the film down for me, Jimmy’s Hall had a restraint and quiet reservation that I very much picked up on, no matter how removed I felt from the subject matter. This new film from Scotland, Sunset Song, goes in that direction of quiet realism with beautiful landscape shots in gorgeous 70mm.
Screenwriter and director, Terence Davies, isn’t a name that is hugely famous outside of the British Isles, but he should be. His first film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, earned some incredible praise when Jean Luc Goddard, usually known for having a disdain for British movies, called his work “magnificent”. Now, with Sunset Song, he adapts a book that has been called one of the most important Scottish novels of the twentieth century. From author Lewis Grassic Gibbon, this book was the first in the A Scots Quair trilogy, and had been adapted for television by BBC Scotland and a few stage plays, but never for the big screen. Davies had to be sure to get this right.
The film follows Chris Guthrie, a young woman living on a farm in Aberdeenshire, located in northeastern Scotland at the beginning of the 1900s. Life is incredibly tough but her family makes it all that much more unbearable with its dysfunction. She has an older brother, two younger ones, and a mother, who are all kept under the iron hand and leather strap of a violent and angry father, played by veteran actor Peter Mullan. The overbearing patriarch of the family abuses the mother emotionally, and sexually assaults her, leading to the addition of twin girls to the family. He regularly brings his oldest son to the barn to be whipped for his insubordinations. He constantly berates Chris, trying to break her independent spirit that seems to threaten him. When tragedy rocks the family, the remaining members of the family must make hard choices as to how their lives will continue.
The film focuses on Chris Guthrie’s stifled beginnings of caring for her abusive father, while trying to be the bright point of her constantly beaten brother and downtrodden mother. It’s a bleak existence that only finds some reprieve when she finds herself as the sole Guthrie left to tend to the land. There her life starts to turn around as she is finally able to emerge from her guarded shell and become the woman she wants to be. She falls in love and marries a man she had been carrying a secret torch for, but things sour again when the world goes to war against the Germans. The film then poses the question of family history repeating itself and we wonder if true happiness is really in the cards for our main character.
Sunset Song is definitely very appealing to the eyes, especially with those beautiful outdoor 70mm pieces I had mentioned earlier. This is all owed to cinematographer Michael McDonough, the man responsible for lensing such beauties as Albert Nobbs, Starred Up and Winter’s Bone, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination. With Sunset Song, McDonough gets to play around with the classic film style we had the privilege of seeing Robert Richardson use for his Oscar-nominated turn on The Hateful Eight, but in a vastly different atmosphere. The camera work in this movie is, for me, the greatest accomplishment and is worth the trip to the theatre alone.
Where this movie loses me are the many dry patches in the story and structure throughout. It takes its time in developing the characters and fleshing out the story; really dragging that over a two hour runtime. I’m not saying it has a Knight of Cups/Terrance Malick overwrought patience, but sometimes I feel like Davies and McDonough were so enamored with their own shot framing that they forgot about the audience. I also could never feel the connection to Chris outside of the sad elements of her plight. Actress Agyness Deyn plays her with a quiet moroseness, which at times was a bit hard for me to read. So really, my attachment to any of the characters was minimal, detracting from my enjoyment of the film.
Where I was expecting some Loach-like approach, Terence Davies wasn’t able to keep the story consistently engaging enough for me to fully engross myself with the film. The celluloid beauty is a huge draw for me, and definitely made me want to praise this film and recommend it to a broader audience, but I think the slower pace of the tale didn’t really need to be drawn out this much, as it largely flattens the picture. A great example is when there’s a beautiful panning shot of a World War I battlefield, a quagmire of mud, barbed wire and the remnants of soldiers equipment, that is thought provoking but goes on far too long and starts to lose meaning to me. That might be a metaphor for Sunset Song, a film that only earns a three out of five out of me at best.