Terence Davies’s new film is a gorgeous Scottish epic with similarities to classic melodramas like How Green Was My Valley but with an arthouse style all its own.
Based on a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song tells the story of a young woman, Chris Guthrie (played by Agyness Deyn), who grows up on a farm in the beautiful hills of northeastern Scotland in the early twentieth century. Chris’s family is dysfunctional, ruled by John Guthrie (Peter Mullan), an abusive tyrannical father/husband who is responsible for much of the horror that plagues Chris’s late childhood and early adulthood. But as Chris comes to terms with the loss of her childhood dreams, she faces the crises of her young life without ever giving up on her independent strong-willed spirit.
Chris’s story is depicted in a series of scenes that highlight the traumas and joys of her life without actually showing some of them (i.e. sometimes we hear them happening in the background, sometimes we are left to imagine them). Combined with the slow and lingering style of cinematography and an almost nonexistent score, this provides a unique and engaging viewing experience. The infrequent use of poetic and insightful voiceovers (by Chris) adds much to this experience. The similarity to Terence Malick’s films is evident, but Sunset Song is more linear and accessible than most of Malick’s films.
One of my favourite scenes in Sunset Song shows people walking across the fields to church on a Sunday morning shortly after Scotland becomes involved in World War I. The choir-like hymn we hear as they walk followed by the horrific sermon from the Presbyterian minister are as haunting as they are beautiful and devastating.
Unfortunately, it is after that scene that Sunset Song begins to lose its way, as its portrayal of the effects of the war feels jarring and unconvincing. Prior to the last half hour, Sunset Song was on its way to collecting four stars. Still, even in its less-satisfying scenes, the film is profound and moving in ways that few films today come close to, as summarized perfectly by one critic (Michael Koresky), who writes: “[Chris’s] sorrowful love and Christ-like forbearance grant the film a humane, earthbound spirituality that Davies’s atheism might otherwise not allow for.”
Sunset Song gets a very solid ***+. My mug is up.