'Sunset Song': TIFF Review

Sunset Song Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A visually stunning, overlong but emotionally engrossing hymn to  family, community and the land in pre-war Scotland

Model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn holds center stage as a passionate farm woman in Terence Davies' epic drama

Terence Davies’s emotionally resonant Sunset Song breathes life into Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ epic Scottish novel about an independent-minded young woman living on a farm in the years preceding World War I. It is a rare director who dares to embrace the slow, meditative rhythms of a classic novel without feeling the need to modernize or accelerate it, but Davies uses the measured pace to unfold his poetic vision of the Scottish peasantry and their attachment to the land. Patient viewers will find themselves caught up in a world apart that seems unchangeable, until its calm is brutally overturned by war.

Despite a long and travailed production history, the film that screened in Toronto is visually stunning and emotionally engrossing, with choppiness evident only in the dramatic final scenes. Clocking in at 135 minutes even minus the last scenes in the novel, it’s a long work that demands the viewer’s engaged attention. For the patient, the pay-off is there.

Holding up the farm is Agyness Deyn, the pixie-haired British supermodel who recently switched to acting (Clash of the Titans, Electricity), in the career-changing role of Chris Guthrie, a bright farm girl who dreams of becoming a teacher. Though her beautiful face and body (there are brief nude scenes) can be as distracting as some of her elaborate hairstyles, Deyn rises to the challenge of Scottish dialogue in the old-time accent of Aberdeenshire, along with her co-stars Peter Mullan and Kevin Guthrie. A greater problem is for the audience struggling to comprehend the brogue, which in the case of Mullan can be particularly elusive. The film will almost certainly need the crutch of English subtitles outside the U.K.  

Like all of Davies’ work from Distant Voices, Still Lives to his 2011 The Deep Blue Sea, this is ultimately a film about memory and the bittersweet images from their pasts that haunt the characters. A lot of story is narrated in a voiceover as Chris looks backs at her life, as though she were reading a deeply pondered diary, giving events nostalgic depth.

At the turn of the last century, the Guthrie family farms the land somewhere outside of Aberdeen. John (a fiercely unsympathetic Mullan) is a violent patriarch who beats his grown son sadistically and forces himself on his long-suffering wife. After giving birth to twins in agonizing labor, she seems to lose her mental balance.

Only their daughter Chris (Deyn), who looks on helplessly out of large, liquid eyes, refuses to rebel against her father’s tyranny. Wearing long brown schoolgirl braids, she reads books and dreams of leaving the coarse country folk behind. Death and illness bring changes to the family, but the strongest tie that binds Chris is never severed: her intense love for the land. And it’s not hard to understand her when gazing at cinematographer Michael McDonough’s glowing landscapes, endless fields of wheat that recall Days of Heaven, rain-drenched and snow-blanketed fields. The painterly visuals of Davies’s films are more achingly beautiful than ever here.

Sacrifices and toughness are required to farm the land and tend the horses, cows, chickens and run the household, and Chris never shirks her lot. One stormy night, dragging two huge workhorses back home through lightning and thunder, she is aided by their young neighbor Ewan (sensitively played by Kevin Guthrie of Sunshine on Leith). Rather surprisingly, their courtship is swift and unobstructed. In fact, the film’s first 90 minutes seem to roll by on oiled wheels, establishing Chris’s passion for life, the magical rhythm of the seasons, and the common values that bind the community together. A grim funeral is followed by a joyful country wedding full of song and food and sharing.

When drama finally arrives, it comes with a devastating vengeance. The far-reaching winds of war send shock waves through the idyllic rural community. The turn of events is extremely abrupt and tumultuous, and psychological realism gets lost in the bustle. For the first and last time, a scene is staged away from the farm community, destroying the extraordinary sense of spatial unity, and the ending has an almost hurried feeling. It’s not enough to ruin the pleasure of the film, but it does close the delicate story on an unsettling note.    

Production companies: Hurricane Films, Iris Productions, SellOutPictures
Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
Director, screenwriter: Terence Davies
Producers: Sol Papadopoulos, Roy Boulter, Nicolas Steil
Executive producers: Bob Last, Alice de Sousa
Director of photography: Michael McDonough
Production designer: Andy Harris
Music: Gast Waltzing
Costumes: Uli Simon
Editor: David Charap
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
135 minutes