An old-fashioned historical epic with a contemporary arthouse style
I was introduced to the impressive work of filmmaker Terence Davies while I was living in London (UK). I have met very few people in North America who have seen any of Davies’s films or know anything about the writer/director of brilliant films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The House of Mirth (2000), and The Deep Blue Sea (2011).
The well-acted and impeccably shot Sunset Song is profound and moving in ways that few films today come close to.
Davies is often compared to filmmaker Terrence Malick because of how infrequently he makes his arthouse masterpieces and because of the autobiographical nature of many of his films. It’s a fair comparison, and the new Sunset Song is the most Malick-like of all of Davies’s films, but I think Davies’s films are more accessible than Malick’s films, and I highly recommend Sunset Song as an introduction to Davies’s work, especially if you like classic historical melodramas based on British novels, like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley.
Sunset Song is a gorgeous Scottish epic based on the much-loved 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It tells the story of an intelligent and independent young woman, Chris Guthrie (played by Agyness Deyn), who grows up on a farm in the beautiful hills of northeastern Scotland in the early 20th century. Chris dreams of becoming a teacher, one of the few professions available to gifted women in that time and place, but even that humble dream is a challenge in the patriarchal society that surrounds her.
Chris’s family is dysfunctional, ruled by John Guthrie (Peter Mullan), an abusive, tyrannical father and husband who is responsible for much of the horror that will plague Chris’s late childhood and early adulthood (minor spoiler: early on, Chris’s mother, discovering she is pregnant yet again, takes her own life, along with the lives of her infant twins). But as Chris comes to terms with the loss of her childhood dreams, she faces the crises of her young life without ever giving up on her independent, strong-willed spirit.
Chris’s story is depicted in a series of scenes that highlight the traumas and joys of her life without actually showing some of them (i.e., sometimes we hear them happening in the background; sometimes we are left to imagine them). Combined with the slow and lingering style of cinematography and an almost nonexistent score, this provides a unique and engaging viewing experience. The infrequent use of poetic and insightful voiceovers (by Chris) adds much to this experience (and reminds us of Malick’s films).
Also reminiscent of Malick are the stunning views of the landscape, which, however, are not separated from Chris’s story but are an integral part of her lifelong attachment to the land.
Sunset Song does show us moments of romance (with neighbor Ewan, played by Kevin Guthrie) and joy in Chris’s life, but World War I makes such joy short-lived. One of my favorite scenes in Sunset Song (perhaps my favorite scene of the year) shows people walking across the fields to church on a Sunday morning shortly after Scotland becomes involved in WWI. The choir-like hymn we hear as they walk and the horrific sermon from the Presbyterian minister are as haunting as they are beautiful and devastating. Many Scottish ministers of that time preached that any adult male Christian who didn’t volunteer to fight was a faithless coward, an example of the church’s frequent complicity in war efforts over the centuries.
Unfortunately, Sunset Song begins to lose its way immediately after that scene in the church, as its portrayal of the effects of the war (during the last half hour of the film) feels jarring and unconvincing. Still, even in its less satisfying scenes, the well-acted and impeccably shot Sunset Song is profound and moving in ways that few films today come close to. And one film critic (Michael Koresky) summarizes its spiritual significance (especially at the end of the film) perfectly when he writes: “[Chris’s] sorrowful love and Christ-like forbearance grant the film a humane, earthbound spirituality that Davies’s atheism might otherwise not allow for.”
Sunset Song is rated R for sexuality, nudity, and some violence.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.