I know from various conversations I have had since it was first announced that there was to be a film version of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel, Sunset Song, that there was a significant amount of concern about it, for two opposing reasons. In the spectrum of love and hate Sunset Song is a novel that promotes strong feelings either way; it seems you can’t be ambivalent about it. So, the thought of the film worried some who didn’t want to see their beloved book adapted, for others it was because it was a text they want to forget.
It does seem that many of those who had it forced upon them at school do not have good memories of Sunset Song. I have sympathy with that as I was one of those children, but when I studied it again in my late-20s as an undergraduate I absolutely fell in love with it, and it remains one of my favourite novels. Perhaps the themes are too complex for many teens? Perhaps some believe, as I did, that if it was taught at school it must be rubbish. Whatever the reasons, if you felt that way I urge you to revisit the text as soon as possible. Then, you’ll likely join the ranks concerned that it will be ruined by a film adaptation. You needn’t worry.
The resulting film is quite beautiful, as you would expect from Terence Davies. If ever a director was perfect for the material this is the case. His previous masterpiece, Distant Lives, Still Voices, had similar themes of working-class life, community, a domineering patriarchal figure, and even the importance of song. In many ways Sunset Song is the rural version of that film, and is none the worse for it. But for all the important themes visited, it is the look which will remain with you. This is film making of the highest order.
Although Davies is a director with a very personal vision, there are other points of reference apparent. Some, such as Bill Douglas’s Trilogy, could be deliberate, others, such as Jaws and Woody Allen’s Love & Death (there’s “a tremendous amount of wheat”) probably less so.
Similarly, with the controversial casting of Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, you can be sure that Davies chose her on the strength of her audition rather on her public profile. It was an inspired choice. Deyn has to carry this film in the sense that the camera is on her 90% of the time. The move from gawky, awkward, bookworm to the still-young woman having to face trial upon trial is believable and heroic. She shows strength, vulnerability, joy and pain which matches that of Chris Guthrie in the novel, and at times it is almost too much to bear, for actress and audience alike. It’s a subtle performance which is all the more powerful for it, and which has the hand of her director all over it.
It’s not the most original thing to say that the structure of the story is like a ballad – it’s in the title after all, but on-screen that becomes even more clear as themes are returned to like chords or a chorus. The land, love, the passing seasons; always changing yet remaining the same. What Davies is unafraid to do is use silence as well, and to let his camera linger longer than many others would dare. Every performance benefits from being reigned in. Where some directors would have asked for bombast, Terence Davies knows that in a film such as this, less is more.
Aside from the redoubtable Deyn, the cast is excellent across the board. You wouldn’t expect anything else from Peter Mullan, surely Scotland’s most arresting screen presence, but here he is astonishing as Chris’s father, John. Full of Old Testament fervour and uncontrollable desire and rage, what could have been grandstanding is understated for the most part so that when the violence comes it is terrifying. The considered moment when he switches which end of his belt he wants to use to beat his son, Will, is awful, and if there is a better piece of acting than his stubborn struggle to get to his feet after a stroke, it is difficult to think of it. His John Guthrie is one of cinema’s most memorable monsters of recent times for the simple reason that he is all too believable.
Chae Strachan is perhaps my favourite character in the book, and Ian Pirie gives a marvellous performance in the role, becoming a reassuring and reliable presence in Chris’s life. It’s another example of Davies allowing the camera to concentrate on the actor as much as what they say, and when Chae is telling Chris what happened to her husband, Ewan, the emotion he expresses, as much by what isn’t said, is heart-breaking. It’s also nice to have an Aberdonian in the cast as the majority seem to have accents which are more Sauchiehall St than Union St.
This may seem like a small point, but the only criticism I have of the film is that the script doesn’t embrace Grassic Gibbon’s Doric inflected language more than it does. Many won’t notice or care, but if the actors in Gregory’s Girl, for instance, spoke with Aberdonian accents, plenty would have been made about it. It didn’t affect my enjoyment, but I can imagine it may for some.
But back to the cast. Daniela Nardini is strong and stoic as Chris’s mother, Jean, before life wears her down. Trish Mullin and Douglas Rankine as Mistress Melon and Long Rob are good in fairly meagre roles, and Jim Sweeney is perfect as the pernicious Reverend Gibbon who calls those who won’t go to war “cowards” from the safety of his pulpit, and in doing so seals Chris and Ewan’s fate. The film is a timely reminder of what happens when those safe in their jobs and social position send young people to die on their behalf.
Never is this more clear than in the transformation of Ewan Taverndale. In the role, Kevin Guthrie has perhaps the most onerous task, aside from Deyn, having to go from bright-eyed, loved up newly wed, to bitter and twisted boy soldier in a short space of time, returning home from the front angry at the world, including his wife. It’s a credit to him that he manages to pull this off, and it makes the final scenes more poignant than they may have been otherwise.
Sunset Song should be seen by everyone, whatever your thoughts on Grassic Gibbon’s novel; or even if you have never heard of it. It’s harrowing at times, even more so than the book which has more humour and light, but, like the book, there is hope at the end. The script is great, and Terence Davies gets inspiring performances from his cast, but what really stays with you is how beautiful the film is, at many times resembling an ever-changing painting. Davies has captured the light of every season in Aberdeenshire, from golden summer days to sepia tinted, rain-soaked winter’s evenings. There are scenes here that I would frame and hang on my wall. When making notes on the film I wrote, “lush but brutal”, and that’s what it is, and what the novel is as well. Human life plays out against the enduring backdrop of the land, and for Terence Davies to capture this is very special indeed.
Here’s the trailer:
..and here is the audio version of this review: