Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song is widely regarded as being one of the most important books in 20th Century Scottish literature, so it’s no surprise that it has been adapted for the stage many times, for television (1971), and now for the big screen, by revered filmmaker Terence Davies. The novel follows several years in the life of Chris Guthrie, a young Scottish woman who tends to the family farm before and during the First World War, and it’s partly about progress, as Chris and other members of the local community shed older traditions and a collective mindset characterised by stern-faced austerity, belligerence and localism for change and broader horizons (though it’s hardly an ultra-positive text, given that the story is about the rifts that such a shift can cause, and is riven with acts of violence, sadness, pain, loss and tragedy). In adapting it Davies has reduced the focus somewhat to concentrate on Chris and her family at home, with few other locations used and some of the book’s less-important characters dispensed with altogether. It’s a smart move given the inherent time constraints of a feature film, and it also allows Davies the space in which he can contrast the Guthrie’s poky, dimly-lit rooms with the glorious bright yellow corn fields that surround their property, which seem to roll on forever. The cinematographer, Michael McDonough, switches between close-up digital for the interiors – all claustrophonic, heavy and oppressive – and 65mm celluloid for the beautiful outdoor scenes, and you can almost hear the characters exhale deeply as they go out into these beautiful wide, open spaces (the film was made in Scotland and New Zealand). The landscape photography is gorgeous, with one dissolve between autumn and winter being a particular highlight.
Certainly with regard to those scenes that are shot indoors there are times when Davies’ version of Sunset Song does feel like a stage play: the sequences aren’t particularly long, or anything, but there’s plenty of dialogue and the characters rarely talk over one another or stumble through their own sentences; words have evidently been lifted directly from novel to screenplay and the actors are consistent with their deliveries, while it’s also obvious that a great deal of blocking has taken place either in rehearsal or during the shoot. If this suggests a film that’s a little staid and inflexible, it’s alleviated somewhat by the movement of the camera, which slowly and gracefully pans left and right, up and down, its gliding often prefixing smooth match cuts that propel the narrative forward through time, and stop the viewer from feeling like they’re completely stuck in a room with immobile people who are shouting at one another. The camera movement will be familiar to Davies fans, and is just one example that highlights the director’s refined approach, which is as aesthetically-pleasing as ever in its embrace of nature and careful to avoid offence when dealing with some of the story’s more unpalatable storylines, such as marital rape (here the camera falls low so that a bed is positioned in the way). Extra poise is added by former model Agyness Deyn, who at times shines in the role of Chris and at other times struggles with the weight of the role, and there’s fine support by the usually-terrifying Peter Mullan, who plays the violent Guthrie family patriarch – a staple Davies character as much as it’s a staple Mullan character. Kevin Guthrie is excellent as Chris’s husband Ewan, who intriguingly veers from being an all-round pre-war nice guy to a bully who has been mentally shattered by the conflict. He becomes the focus of the emotive final scenes, somewhat suprisingly, and rises to the occasion with some fine acting.
Directed by: Terence Davies.
Written by: Terence Davies. Based on the novel Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Daniella Nardini, Jack Greenlees, Niall Greig Fulton, Douglas Rankine.
Cinematography: Michael McDonough.
Editing: David Charap.
Music: Gast Waltzing.
Running Time: 133 minutes.