Sunset Song is the latest movie from British auteur Terence Davies. Set in a rural Scottish community before the First World War, it stars the former model Agyness Deyn in an astonishingly measured and compelling performance. Other performances, especially from Kevin Guthrie as Ewan are excellent. But as Chris Guthrie Deyn is the centrepiece of the movie, a quietly understated portrayal which shines out of the dark grittiness in the tale.
For let’s make no bones here, this story is the kind of exploration of quite how awful the lives of people used to be in the old days. It’s the kind of stuff British cinema is famous for. Mocked for even. Adapted from the classic Scots novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song does have all the hallmarks of that kind of film. The overbearing father (played to perfection by Peter Mullan) the meek put upon wife (a similarly excellent Daniella Nardini) and the day-to-day poverty of working the land. All in all it seems bleak. And life back then was hard, incredibly hard, but often films seem to revel in the depiction of that hardship.
What rises Sunset Song above the usual historical-poverty-porn is the moments of lightness, the things which drive Chris, her passion, her intelligence, the very poetry of her life. Quiet moments of loving life. Even when her dreams are shattered by circumstance and her uncaring bully of a father she refuses to be beaten down. Her eyes shine. And this is shown through visual brilliance. The cinematography is astonishingly beautiful throughout.
She is strong, a strong character who is more than stoic, who seizes opportunity and makes the best of situations.
Filmed in Luxembourg, and New Zealand as well as Scotland where it is set, the Aberdeenshire countryside at the centre of the tale is almost another character. At all times the photography sings.
If the film does linger over moments and take its time, it’s not a tedious longueur – the pace is slow in places but by way of getting the audience bedded in to the world. Yes, it took me awhile to get used to, but I was won over. Once I gave myself over to it the gentle progression became all the more tragic as the outside world intruded to the Aberdeenshire countryside. It’s telling that the only time we leave the environs properly is for a trip to the Belgian location of the First World War. It’s also appalling and shocking. The barbarism of the British forces behaviour towards their own troops is devastating.
Sunset Song is a rites of passage drama, underscored by the point that while people change the land always endures.
The DVD also includes three novels of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair Trilogy, of which Sunset Song is the first volume, as a pdf you can transfer to an e-reader.
Sunset Song comes out on DVD on 4th April and is a deceptively affecting watch.