In Sunset Song, Terence Davies achieves something that is actually relatively straight-forward: he makes Scotland look like the most beautiful place on earth.
Based on Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ 1932 novel, Sunset Song charts the course of Chris, as she moves from childhood to adulthood, in rural Scotland leading up to World War 1. While much of the plot develops around the relationships with men in her life – her beloved brother (Jack Greenlees), her domineering, violent father (Peter Mullan), and her eventual husband (Kevin Guthrie) – it is Agyness Deyn as Chris who superbly holds the film together from its centre.
Initially in her life, Chris, her mother and brother find themselves subservient to her father. Peter Mullan’s Tom Waits-esque gruff voice is deep and threatening enough to cause reverberations around the room. It’s a role he finds himself playing often (except when he finds himself singing “Oh Jean” in ‘Sunshine On Leith’ (Dexter Fletcher, 2013)). It’s also a role – that of the violent father – that is found often in Davies’ films, notably with Pete Postlethwaite’s exceptional performance in the equally exceptional ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ (1988).
Later in the film, the scenes between Chris and her husband are beautifully tender, and beautifully realistic due to the simplicity of their interactions, in a way in which films so often fail to be. Meanwhile, Chris finds herself stuck in a society that looks down upon her for her gender. The importance of her central performance should not be underestimated, as it is crucial to the success of the film.
The other central pillar of the film’s success is that visually, it is stunning. The landscapes are beautifully captured with exceptionally vibrant colours, particularly the lush green grass. He is obviously helped by having Scotland as his canvas, but there is a great talent to making the film look so fresh and natural. The beautifully captured wheat fields evoke the cinematic offering of another Terence in ‘Days Of Heaven’ (Terrence Malick, 1978) (OK, I realise the spelling doesn’t quite work).
Even the indoor sequences have a widescreen-quality to them. The characters faces’ have remarkable expression to them, right down to the small details. To do full justice to the film, it really needs to be watched in a cinema.
This beauty is also created through the lighting. In the manner of Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975), there appears to be no artificial light used in the film (or if it is, it is done very subtly). Instead, the film appears lit by natural light outdoors, and by candlelight inside. The result is a highly authentic atmosphere to them film.
The authentic feel is also helped by the careful attention that has gone into the costumes. Uli Simon, the costume designer, deserves great credit for this. The design is not there for show, as is often the case in period dramas. Instead the drab clothes lend an aura of credibility and truthfulness to the film.
The score is kept to a minimum during the film, particularly at moments of great drama. What there is of a score is almost entirely diegetic – folk bands playing Auld Lang Syne, congregations singing hymns in church – lending a further layer of realism and authenticity to the film. (Perhaps the only piece non-diegetic music comes near the end in a very moving sequence.)
Whilst the film is visually stunning, it would be completely wrong to dismiss the film as having nothing beyond that. As mentioned before, the performances are excellent. Some have (wrongly) said that the film is slow. Instead, what there actually is, is a stillness to many scenes. The camera does not move quickly or energetically, and the scenes are unhurried. But because the overall plot is told in quite an episodic manner, regularly jumping to the next important stage of Chris’ life, there are no scenes that lack in drama, character or purpose, and no sense of boredom or lethargy to the film.
The message of change is central to the film, particularly of change in the community. One notable example is that of attitude towards gender in the community. Chris, as a woman, is able to own and run land and property by herself, despite initial the initial condemnation and dismayed looks she receives from others. There are other changes to the community too. New farming technology is being introduced to the countryside. The coming of World War 1 brings a new threat – less displayed as a threat to Britain here, but a threat to the rural Scottish way of life, which can no longer be isolated and unattached to decisions made in London. The impact of the war also changes her husband, and the nature of their relationship. And during all of this, from scene to scene we see the seasons cycling numerous times through spring, summer, autumn, and winter, and the Scottish countryside changing with it.
The film also deals with violence. Chris grew up in a violent atmosphere caused by her father. And violence becomes crucial again toward the end of film in the relationship between Chris and her husband (please note the careful avoidance of plot spoilers here). Both these issues, of the changing community and the nature of violence, are not forced down the audience’s collective throats. Instead, Davies leaves them as an excellent aside, to be consumed at the audience’s discretion.
Terence Davies is still far too under-appreciated by a wider British public. To be honest, it would be difficult for him to be over-appreciated. In ‘Distant Voices, Still Lives’ (1988) he created one of the greatest British films of all time. Sunset Song is another excellent addition to his even more excellent filmography, and being able to maintain such high standards is not so straight-forward.