A symphony for a forgotten Scotland, Terence Davies’ Sunset Song gets caught between majestic imagery and a meandering narrative in a minor key.
Auld Lang Syneby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
For a good catholic Englishman such as Terence Davies, who previously brought us the documentary paean to his hometown Liverpool in Of Time And The City, it might seem strange to head north of the border to the wilds of Aberdeenshire for his latest film Sunset Song, his adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s quintessentially Scottish novel. But Davies is not one for playing it safe, interweaving familiar, personal themes of community, nostalgia and illicit love with something altogether more challenging, as evidenced by his Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion currently filming. And riding the wave of national pride and graced with a downright literary bent, having previously adapted Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth and Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Davies’ style suits Gibbon’s classic down to the sodden ground, with its gorgeous sweeps over ripening cornfields and its emotional swell. A fair symphony of Scotland – of both land and freedom.
Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) is a bright young thing who, despite the early death of her mother (Daniela Nardini), the emigration of her brother (Jack Greenlees) and a harsh upbringing at the hands of her abusive (Peter Mullan), eschews the temptations of education and the big smoke to look after the farmstead, their own little patch of land. And try as she might, when her father dies, to take care of her own affairs, both legal and financial, her only path to independence, it seems, is in marrying handsome sweetheart Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). Only it’s a paradise quickly lost, when her husband is conscripted to serve another country’s king in the Great War. And when Ewan returns home on leave violent and brutalized, this fight for her land, it seems, is one she’s going to have to carry on alone.
Much like Rebecca’s Manderley, Tara in Gone With The Wind or Bedford Falls in It’s A Wonderful Life, Sunset Song’s Blawearie takes on an almost mythical status – the piece of earth that Chris Guthrie can’t separate herself from. And as we witness the coming and going of the seasons in glorious widescreen, it’s easy to see why. (Although, it’s still strangely baffling that Terence Davies had to go all the way to New Zealand to get his Highland vistas.) Yet, with no dramatic arc or narrative tension to speak of, the problem with Sunset Song though is that until we, the viewer, has understood that Guthrie and Blawearie are two manifestations of the same Scotland, Sunset Song is strangely unaffecting – caught between the two stools of traditional narrative and a more ambitious, symphonic harmony – neither expressive nor uplifting enough to engage on either level. And it’s a made only worse by the fact that once we’ve finally grasped what Davies is up to, that he finally rams the point home with an “I am the land” speech.
But while Sunset Song is by no means faultless – with occasionally awkward dialogue and characterisation as Ewan heads off to war and a tongue-tied confusion between the male author’s voice and Agyness Deyn’s narration, as she waxes over her own bonnie features. Aptly embodied by Deyn, Chris Guthrie doesn’t fit our expectations of a modern heroine, giving up education and independence in favour of a muddy kind of drudgery at home. And yet, that is perhaps Sunset Song’s greatest coup – reasserting a sense of place for an otherwise untethered, overfilled nation. And alongside the poetic, melodic beauty of Davies’ images, there are also moments of sharp insight, as Davies reinvisages the notion of cowardice – framing Ewan’s desertion as inseparability from the land.
Moving through a repeated arrangement of landscape, faces, voices, songs Terence Davies creates with characteristic sensitivity a forgotten Scotland. It’s a mesmerising, symphonic evocation of land and country, and while it might not strike quite the emotional chord it should, Sunset Song is still a beautifully melancholy, Hibernian rhapsody.
Sunset Song is released on 4th December 2015 in the UK