Sunset Song full movie review - Suffers under Davies' jumbled approach, but Deyn's performance redeems it.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel Sunset Song is considered a classic of Scottish literature, and English director Terence Davies has spent 15 years bringing it to the screen. It's with a heavy heart that perhaps the sprawling and archaic epic may not translate to contemporary cinema.
It's the story of Chris Guthrie in the early 20th century, a teenage girl (here played by Agyness Deyn) who suffers the changing rota of her family as they pass on or exit, ultimately leaving the farm to her tending. At first, it seems it's operating on a compelling contradiction that's rarely explored. While not only is a young woman's perspective in this time hardly considered on film, but it puts her in command, independent of a man's world while they were drafted to war. Unfortunately, it doesn't sing from that hymn sheet.
The biggest problem is that it seems to lack thematic consistency, or at least develop them with interesting contrasts. Its strongest idea is initially the passage of womanhood, but instead it's interested in vicious cycles. The first third of Sunset Song is a series of examples of pure misery as Chris suffers with little relief. Peter Mullan stars as her abusive father, clearly channelling Pete Postlewaite in Distant Voices, but without the dimensions. Mullan is perfectly capable of dominating the film like he's offered here, but Davies needed to give him more layers. As sources of misery are picked off, the second third is, delightfully, pure joy. Despite some obstacles, Chris thrives on the farm and begins a seemingly happy marriage with her brother's gentle friend Ewan. However, it's void of irony of what came before and what's to come.
The war comes. It whisks Ewan away despite his initial reluctance then his branding as a coward. With little prior hints, the film turns into a bleak anti-war film in how it destroys the fabric of families in spite of earlier strengths. Chris' brilliant triumphs as an independent woman do not overcome. A compassionate film would have left veins of bittersweetness within its rays of hope and despair, but instead it's simply flat, void of the expressionistic nostalgia that Davies has utilised before. Distant Voices, Still Lives ? one of the finest British films I've ever seen ? and The Long Day Closes, which I was less impressed with, both have exquisite photography, creating an ethereal atmosphere. The photography here is misjudged, being far too wide for an intimate film while its modern crispness makes it feel like actors playing dress- up in theatre. At least the locations lend themselves to the beauty when the camera is outside.
Not to rob the film of its brightest shining attribute though. Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is absolutely incredible, carrying the film squarely on her shoulders. She's raw, committed and deeply expressive. While her character certainly needed more work, she's never dragged down by the film's shortcomings and elevates the film where it falls. The supporting cast doesn't quite have the same potency, but that's mostly due to Davies' overly simple handling of the material. Kevin Guthrie as Ewan has two interesting sides to his character to explore, as he starts kind but transforms into a man like Chris' father, but they're put beside each other. Those facets are finally blended, but by that point it was too late to redeem. Perhaps it was more powerful when the book was written in the 30s at the dawn of another war. In Davies' direction, the film is often either conventional in its domestic dramas or its a meagre attempt at those conventions.
Sunset Song does occasionally have ambitions beyond the grand struggles of the Scottish people in the early century. With Deyn's narration, it occasionally dips into profound ideas of her insignificance in the grand scheme of time. If delivered quicker, it could have made more of an impact. It also dips into the ideas of the relationship between people and the land as the land stays resilient while war takes people away. It contrasts Chris' own battered endurance with the land's bruises. As the film plays one note at a time, it's difficult to take anything pure away from it, but at least attempts are made and lifts it up from mediocrity. Perhaps this just wasn't the right source material for a film just over 2 hours long as it even suffers from its slow pacing. Davies has always focused on the past rather than the present, but perhaps his perspective is too ancient for cinema now.