Directed by: Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Starring: Agyness Deyn (Chris Guthrie), Peter Mullan (John Guthrie), Kevin Guthrie (Ewan Tavendale), Hugh Ross (Inspector), Douglas Rankine (Long Rob), Ian Pirie (Chae Strachan), Niall Greig Fulton (John Brigson), Jim Sweeney (Preacher), Jack Greenlees (Will Guthrie), Julian Nest (Peter Semple), Trish Mullin (Mistress Melon).
The surfaces of Terence Davies’ movies – from his breakthrough Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) to his latest, Sunset Song, are always beautiful. His films are could be considered tragedies, in which his main characters are pulled down, and often destroyed – and yet, are ultimately about memory. His characters are frequently miserable, yet also frequently remembering times when they were more miserable – with a strange sense of nostalgia. At his best – like The House of Mirth (2000), his films can be quiet stunners. Yet, personally, I quite often feel distant from his movies – that beautiful surface keeping me arms lengths away from his characters. This is true of Sunset Song – which is lesser hands would almost be comic in its tour of abject misery from beginning to end, but in Davies’ hands mostly works – even though I don’t think the movie ever quite gets inside the head of its main character as it tries to do.
The film takes place in the years before – and in the late stages, during – WWI, in Scotland. Chris (Agyness Deyn) is a gifted student being raised by a brutish father (Peter Mullen) and a mother who has been beaten down by not only her father – who thinks nothing of raping her – but by society itself, who gives a woman like her no option except to continue to be raped by someone like her husband. Mullen has played this role before – often – although it must be said he’s frequently brilliant in it, so it makes some sense to cast him again (it also allows Davies to perhaps more thinly sketch him than normal – because Mullan is able to do so much without doing much of anything). Those are tough years working the same, small patch of land, and having almost as few options as her mother. Eventually, she will be alone on that land – and has a brief respite from the tragedy when she meets and falls in love with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), an overly sensitive soul. You almost have to laugh when WWI breaks out – knowing full well what is coming next to the happy couple.
Deyn is a model turned actress – which is unsurprising, since she is undeniably gorgeous, and Davies camera certainly highlights that beauty. It is a quiet, understated performance that generally works – it’s in the less understated moments where she struggles – but lacks the depth that someone like Gillian Anderson brought to The House of Mirth or Rachel Weisz did in The Deep Blue Sea. Deyn lacks those depths – and the voiceover in the film, which talks of “two Chris’” warring with each other is basically trying to do the heavy lifting that Deyn’s performance cannot do. The movie clocks in at well over two hours, and for the most part, is rather languidly paced – which makes some of the things that happened in the third act, that feel rushed, harder to understand (Ewan’s sudden transformation – and then reverse transformation seems to happen in a blink of an eye).
Yet, despite my reservations on the film, I do have to admit that it did slowly win me over. It helps that Davies’ film is, as always, meticulously shot and crafted. The exteriors are shot in 65MM, and are as utterly beautiful as anything in a Terrence Malick film – a comparison that is unavoidable, given Davies’ beautiful shots of rustling wheat throughout the film. The use of music – another Davies’ specialty – is equally brilliant, and underlines the themes of memory, love and regret without beating you over the head with them.
In short, Sunset Song is perhaps the most beautiful film you will see this year – the Twitter account One Perfect Shot will more screenshots out of this film than any film since Hou’s The Assassin last fall. If the content cannot quite live up to the craft, perhaps that understandable – even forgivable.