Film review: Sunset Song

David Gritten / 02 December 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Sunset Song, British director Terence Davies’s adaptation of a classic Scottish novel.

The veteran film-maker Terence Davies certainly knows how to stage a scene for subtle emotional resonance and visual impact.

Many of his films (The Deep Blue Sea, The House of Mirth, Distant Voices, Still Lives) have zeroed in on intense human relationships, though his latest offering also offers vistas of untamed natural beauty. 

For 15 years or so, Davies has laboured to adapt Sunset Song for film, and it’s to his credit that he has succeeded.

Lewis Grassic Gibbons’s classic Scottish novel, published in 1932 and little known to readers south of the border, is set in rural Aberdeenshire around the outbreak of the First World War.

The region’s wild landscapes complement the story’s fraught dramas, played out by farming folk doing their best to survive harsh lives.

Its central character, Chris Guthrie (played by model-actress Agyness Deyn), is a tough-minded young woman trying to hold her family’s farm together at a time when the war and other factors are endangering their way of life. Chris is an avid reader; it is hinted she might have been a gifted teacher. But she has dutifully thrown in her lot with the farm.

Her father (Peter Mullan) rules the family with cruel directness, whipping his eldest son with his belt almost at random. He is severe, God-fearing and utterly autocratic; the role fits Mullan like a glove.

Chris’s soldier husband Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) has returned from the front lines and a couple of jolting scenes make it clear how war has brutalised this young man. The film might pull a few punches when compared to Gibbons’ novel, but it’s unsentimental (to put it mildly) about childbirth and sexual passion.

So much unhappiness, and so much beauty; Davies understands the paradox and exploits it deftly. His characters and their stories are indivisible from the terrain they inhabit; the action here spans a single year, from one harvest to another.

Davies also gets the most out of his actors: it’s too early to say if Agyness Deyn will enjoy a major screen career, but she turns in a workmanlike performance.

The gifted Mullan, of course, can play hard men like this in his sleep. The one to watch here is Kevin Guthrie, star of Sunshine on Leith (a far more cheerful Scottish film), who invests the troubled Ewan with complexity and depths of which he seems barely conscious.

It would be misleading to suggest that Sunset Song is easy viewing. A few sequences are harsh and brutal; the degree of dysfunction in this tight-knit family can seem relentless. And it’s fair to say that the further south you live in Great Britain, the more likely you are to find the accents occasionally impenetrable.

I’m not entirely convinced the estimable Davis has quite succeeded with this adaptation; its final third feels somewhat unresolved. But its status as meticulous, ravishing film-making is undeniable.

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