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Sunset Song poster

D: Terence Davies / 135m

Cast: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Jack Greenlees, Daniela Nardini, Ian Pirie, Douglas Rankine

Terence Davies is not one of the UK’s most prolific movie makers, but he is one who is highly regarded and he’s been justly lauded over the years for movies such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The House of Mirth (2000). He’s a director who chooses his projects with great care, and he invests a lot of time and effort in getting things right. Sunset Song, an adaptation of the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, has taken fifteen years to reach our screens, and shows Davies focusing on the lives of a small farming family on the eve of World War I.

The main character is Chris Guthrie (Deyn), the eldest daughter of John (Mullan) and Jean (Nardini). She has her work on the farm to occupy her, but she has few plans for her own future, despite being well educated and with an innate sense of the world around her (even if she hasn’t travelled far enough to see it). Her father is a hard, pitiless man who controls the farm and his family with a harshness that tips over into brutality when he feels it necessary. As well as Chris, he has a son, Will, and two younger children, Dod and Alec. John and Will clash continually, and Chris tries to act as peacekeeper but her father’s attitude makes it difficult.

Sunset Song - scene1

When Jean discovers she is pregnant again, it proves too much for her, and the action she takes to avoid childbirth leads to Dod and Alec being sent to live with their aunt and uncle. Tensions and tempers flare up as John and Will clash ever more violently, and so much acrimony arises that Will makes the decision to emigrate to South America. Left on her own with her father, Chris has no choice but to fill both her brother’s and her mother’s shoes, and run the household as well as look after parts of the farm. She and her father have an uneasy relationship, and it’s made harder when he suffers a stroke that leaves him bedridden. Subsequently she finds herself in charge of the farm, and with a difficult decision to make: sell up or manage the farm herself.

She chooses the latter, and with help from some of her neighbours and old friends of her father’s, Chris finds she has a natural flair for farm management, and she comes to realise just how much she loves the life she leads. Wooed by a young farmer called Ewan Tavendale (Guthrie), Chris eventually marries him and they have a son. But World War I arrives and Ewan goes off to fight in France. Chris waits anxiously for his return but when he does he’s a changed man: violent, angry and aggressive. Fearing the consequences for their marriage if he’s the same when the war ends, Chris is left with yet another difficult decision to make.

If you’re adapting a classic novel then it makes sense to stick closely to the novel’s structure and themes, and with Sunset Song, Davies has done exactly that. The farm, Blawearie, is surrounded by rolling hills and (in summer at least) some very beautiful meadowland, but it’s an old farm, with few modern appliances or signs of mechanical progress to show that John is moving forward with the times. Chris and Will can see the value of these modernisations but their father is something of a grim traditionalist, holding out against the inevitability of change. It’s his way of staying in control, even if ultimately, it’s to his, and the farm’s, detriment.

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With themes of change firmly embedded in the script and foregrounding the relationships between Chris, Will, and their father, Davies is free to explore the role of women in such small communities – Chris is independent and speaks her own mind, not a commonplace for the period – as well as the way in which these small communities unite in times of need, and often in a way that is now anathema to modern ways of thinking; despite his often appalling behaviour, John is still highly regarded by his peers, and where he might be shunned today, back then he’s still a man to be respected, and helped when required.

But while the tone and the subject matter and the characters are all handled with skill and seemingly effortless dexterity, somehow Davies has managed to make Sunset Song somehow lacking, as if the story, by itself, should be enough to carry the viewer along quite comfortably. Instead, the narrative meanders at times as it tries to paint a broader picture of the small world it’s focused on. The events that occur on Blawearie Farm, while undeniably dramatic, also suffer from over-familiarity. The blinkered, brutal father figure is one we’ve seen time and again (and with Mullan in the role as well), and the character of Chris is the intelligent, brave, compassionate daughter who acts as a counterpoint to her father’s belligerence. A classic tale complete with classic characters is here transposed into a classic tale with all-too predictable character arcs.

To be fair it’s not entirely Davies’ fault. The problems are inherent in the story and the narrative, as each step of Chris’s journey to maturity and independence are threatened at every turn, and her resilience and resourcefulness is challenged each time. Davies never really finds a way to overcome these over-familiarities, and we’re left with a movie that is sumptuous to look at, and beautifully framed and realised as only Davies can devise, but also a movie that doesn’t allow itself to connect with the audience, preferring instead to tell its story at a distance. There’s never any real emotional investment made in the characters, or their trials and tribulations, and without that investment, many scenes lack the intensity needed to draw the audience in.

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Nevertheless, Sunset Song is still a good movie, but one that could have made more of an impact on viewers. Davies is at times a visually astonishing director, and there are several shots in the movie that are simply superb in terms of light and colour and shade and composition. His cast are uniformly excellent, with Deyn grabbing all the plaudits as Chris, giving a complex, striking performance as a young woman on the verge of achieving whatever she wants, but still retaining the insecurity that comes with being in such a momentous position. Mullan could probably play his type of role in his sleep by now, but there are few actors who can take such an objectionable character and make him recognisably, understandably human. The scenes between the two of them, though lacking the emotional charge that’s sorely needed, are still fascinating to watch for the ways in which both actors spar with each other.

There’s certainly room for this type of “heritage” movie in amongst all the over-hyped productions out there, and Davies is a movie maker we should all cherish for his ability to bring recent periods in history to life with such precision and attention to detail, but with Sunset Song he’s made a movie that only goes part way to achieving the classic status of its source novel.

Rating: 8/10 – a bracing depiction of early 20th Century Scottish farming life with terrific performances and Davies creating a fully recognisable world, Sunset Song – while missing a fair degree of passion in its telling – is still a movie with considerable merit; achingly beautiful in places, and a joy to watch if you appreciate measured, thoughtful movie making, Davies’ latest may be a tad disappointing but it’s still head and shoulders above the majority of movies out there at the moment.