tue 23/04/2024

DVD: Sunset Song | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Sunset Song

DVD: Sunset Song

The harsh times of a land-loving Scottish farmer's daughter in the 1910s

Before sunset: Agyness Deyn and Peter Mullan

Terence Davies’s Sunset Song, adapted by him from the first part of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Hardyesque A Scots Quair Trilogy (1932-34), is a farming family tragedy that morphs into the story of the young heroine’s doomed marriage during World War I. Lambently photographed by Michael McDonough, it succeeds as a paean to the spiritual tug exerted on Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) by the landscape of the Mearns in north-east Scotland.

Yet by Davies’s impeccable standards, the film is oddly disjointed and underwhelming.

Like his masterful Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), it evokes its protagonist’s ambivalent nostalgia for a past terrorised by a brutal father. Strict Presbyterian John Guthrie (Peter Mullan, too obvious casting here) thrashes Chris’s brother Will for the merest infraction and forces sex on his worn-out wife. She kills herself and her newborn twins after she becomes pregnant with what would have been her seventh child. 

Will having fled with his bride, Chris relinquishes her promising academic career to run the farm after John is felled by a stroke. Davies mutes the bedridden John’s incestuous longing for Chris; similarly, he eliminates the sexual tension between her and the pacifist miller Chae Strachan and the socialist tenant farmer Long Rob. The ploughman Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie, pictured above) captures her heart and, as young marrieds, they enjoy a brief idyll before he enlists in the army. Gibbon’s interest in Chris’s sexuality is voyeuristic; Davies honours it as a natural flourishing.

It's a pity there'll be no opportunity for Agyness Deyn to deepen the character

The film’s third act (its ceremonial set pieces more stylistically reminiscent of Davies's previous work than what preceded it) depicts the effect on Chris of Ewan's moral degeneration by his experiences as a whoring squaddie in Lanark, then as a reluctant soidier in France. Davies contrasts the beauty and plenitude of Chris's Blawearie fields before harvesting with the churned mud and denuded skyline of the Western Front.

Abused by Ewan when he was last on leave, Chris is charged with discovering what he feels, or felt, for her. Sunset Song's release just before the centenary of the carnage on the Somme was apt, but the movie's evolution into an anti-war tract impedes that of the woman's story. A requiem shot of a piper, seemingly unironic, constitutes a lapse into touristic imagery. Ex-model Deyn is earnest as Chris; it's a pity there'll be no opportunity for her to deepen the character as Gibbon did in the novel's sequels, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite. Happily, the reader of the e-books of the trilogy contained in the DVD can imagine her grappling with motherhood and survival.

Gibbon’s interest in Chris’s sexuality is voyeuristic; Davies honours it as a natural flourishing


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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