Title: Sunset Song
Director: Terence Davies
Major Players: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
Out Of Five: 3
Sunset Song is Terence Davies’ first film in four years and one that’s been on the back burner for even longer. So, just like his previous offering, his adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, it arrives with a flurry of expectation.
This time, we’re in the early 20th century in rural North East Scotland and teenager Chris (Agyness Deyn) has a promising future: she loves studying, goes to college and plans to be a teacher. But family circumstances change all that: she becomes the woman of the house and has to cope with an ailing father. Life seems to be looking up when she marries local lad Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) and they run the farm together. But everything changes again when he goes off to fight in World War I.
The title is one that resonates throughout the film. The advent of war marks the end of an era for Chris’s way of life and far, far beyond, with change following swiftly and more slowly. When she becomes the woman of the house, the life she planned for herself is wiped out. It happens again when Ewan goes to war. But the film ends with a lingering shot of a Scottish piper at sunset, and she smiles as she watches him. Because she knows that when the sun goes down it always comes up again the following day, and that will be the day she can start the life she’s always wanted. And, after everything she’s gone through, you feel she’s deserved it.
The film is also something of an elegy to the land itself, a lyrical but unsentimental one, so we see it at its most beautiful and most unforgiving. There’s the sunshine on the cornfield, the breeze rippling through the golden ears, curtains of torrential rain, thunder and lightning shattering a tree. But it’s the sunshine that’s the most abiding memory, thanks to a few moments when the brilliant light is used to stunning effect, streaming into the church and then lighting up the farmhouse’s gloomy parlour, all sludgy greens and browns.
These are the film’s strong points, and Agyness Deyn continuing her transition from model to actress is another. She puts in an expressive, sympathetic performance in a role that sees her mature from a naïve, idealistic teenager to a resourceful young woman. She also provides the narration, the poetic, lyrical heart of the film, and does it beautifully. However, I could have done without her perfect manicure: she complains that her hands are red from scrubbing and hard work, but they never get further than a healthy pale pink. It jars.
On the downside, there’s Peter Mullan as the father. We’ve all seen him do his psycho bully turn and here he is, doing it again. Not that he does it badly: he really is a nasty piece of work, turning his wife into a baby machine, bullying her and beating his son Will (Jack Greenlees) for the slightest indiscretion. For all his quoting of the bible and singing hymns during harvest, he’s seriously short on Christian charity. But we’ve seen it all before and this is once too often. There’s just one moment where he shows us something special and different: his physical contortions when he suffers a stroke in the farmyard. This is a man that stubbornly and steadfastly refuses to lie down, let alone die.
Chris’s marriage to the likeable, caring Ewan comes as a relief and delight all round. Which makes his behaviour when he returns home on leave from the War is all the more incredulous. He’s turned into her father! OK, he doesn’t look like him, but his behaviour is just as tyrannical and exploitative. And when we find out the reason for it later on, that makes even less sense.
This could have been a really emotional, heartbreaking watch. Instead, there’s moments of distress, because our sympathy is always with Chris, hurt and pain but it doesn’t consistently draw us in. And when it does, all it leaves is a longing for more of the same.
Sunset Song is released in cinemas on Friday, 4 December and is reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 3 December.