Director Terence Davies takes Scottish writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s famous work about the harsh and tumultuous Scottish country life just before the Great War, and brings us just over two hours of visual poetry in Sunset Song. The problem with visual poetry, which Davies is unable to shake, is that his characters and the narrative trudge along to satisfy the needs of the delectably shot countryside, but not much more. The lands are hay-laden and green, and the lush meadows and delectable farmland makes village living in the early 1900’s seem like a dream for anyone burdened by the mindless monstrosity that is urban living in 2016. But as for themes of village life, women’s silenced voices, brutish patriarchy, subservience in marriage, the futility of war and its consequential emotional traumas… Sunset Song doesn’t hone in on any of these, and barring the enthusiastic presence of actor Agyness Deyn, the film satisfies all visual senses but doesn’t quench one’s appetite.
The Guthire family is ruled by brutish father John (actor Peter Mullan) who treats his wife Jean as nothing more than the keeper of his household and the machine that gives him babies. Shockingly, his adult children sit downstairs listening to their ‘older’ mother suffer childbirth, when she should be getting ready to tend to grandchildren. But John’s wrath is not confined to just his wife. He treats his adult son Will (played by handsome Jack Greenless) with physical reprimand, and the slightest sign of insolence is met by whipping and verbal abuse. While Chris watches all this and maintains a semblance of balance for the family, the constant pressures of country life, the labor in the fields, and the iron fist of her father at home ensure that her rebellion doesn’t stay hidden. But her mother then poisons herself and her two toddlers when she finds herself with another unwanted pregnancy, and this prompts Will’s departure to the city, thus leaving Chris to care for a still brutish, yet rapidly aging father.
Through the slow evolution of the narrative, Davies doesn’t spare any effort in creating a canvas of delightful visuals that are nothing but sheer pleasure to watch. In all this, there are hints of feminism, as Chris battles a rainstorm to save her horses in the stables, attracting respect from villagers and other extended family members.
A village bloke Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) and Chris strike a cute youthful fondness for each other and after John’s passing, which comes as a relief for Chris, they wed in a lavish village celebration. John’s passing was another moment in the film where Davies couldn’t really ramp-up the emotional impact like he did during Chris’s decision to not aid her father while he scrambles in his last few moments. The scene is full of silent revenge, some guilt, and a need for self-preservation for Chris, none of which really stand out.
War breaks out and like all men, Ewan heads to the front, leaving Chris behind. She tends to the home and the farm, unsure if this will be her life for the rest of her days. Ewan will return from war, bruised and emotionally shaken. As expected, Chris becomes the victim of his ire and the futility of war. From spousal (sexual) violence to the complete loss of a life they shared, the narrative meanders a little bit as Ewan and Chris reconcile to life and choices after the war.
I read a bit of rumblings about the Scottish accent being hard to fathom, but like any film, context and historical accuracy sometimes warrants linguistic authenticity and while the Scottish accent wasn’t easily understood, a subtitled version is always an option.
Agyness Deyn as a country girl from Aberdeenshire carries the film on her shoulders and scores high as she battles tradition, the confines of her gender, and a world that is not keeping pace with the impending change. Davies scores both on visuals and aesthetic. It would have been nice to see these two mesh together.