Festival Review: Sunset Song (2015)

Sunset Song

Agyness Deyn is the Flower of Scotland in Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, a slowly ambitious and symphonic evocation of land and country.

Land and Freedom

by Mark Wilshin

Sunset Song

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The clue perhaps is in the title. And Terence Davies’ Sunset Song isn’t a film by ordinary measure. Taking place over several years, it’s a song for Scotland – here embodied in the character of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) who survives the death of her mother (Daniela Nardini), the emigration of her brother (Jack Greenlees) and a harsh upbringing at the hands of her gruff father (Peter Mullan). And after he dies, she marries Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), who goes off to fight in the First World War for another Country and King. For they are people of the land, and as Sunset Song progresses through a repeated arrangement of ripening wheat fields, it’s a movement of time and place that keeps Chris tethered to Blawearie. Unfortunately, however, with no dramatic narrative to speak of, Terence Davies’ film only really works as a metaphor. She is the land, and the land endures. And it’s fitting that Scotland be personified by a woman, pushed from father to husband, raped and pillaged by a brutal coloniser. But it comes at the cost of our heroine’s character, who gives up education and independence for the sake of her land. And Davies can’t quite decide between letting the poetic images speak for themselves, or making sure we’ve grasped the melody. Based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, there’s a confusion between the conflicting voices of author and director, as Agyness Deyn’s narration delivers Chris’ thoughts and emotions, while the director has seemingly every man in the Highlands tell the lass how bonnie she is. And while Davies throws everything off-course with an abrupt change in character before Ewan goes to war, Sunset Song also offers an interesting rehabilitation of cowardice – alchemised almost into an act of patriotism – as Ewan deserts for home, inseparable from the land. As a plastic evocation of Scotland through its faces, voices, songs and history, Sunset Song is a rhapsody in gloom. It doesn’t soar quite like it should, but strikes a deafening chord all the same.

Sunset Song is now showing at the London Film Festival

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