By Elias Savada.
Terence Davies does love his literary adaptations. His 2011 romantic drama The Deep Blue Sea was based on Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play of post-war relationships gone bad. Three of Davies’ features spring from the books of others, including The Neon Bible (1996) and The House of Mirth (2000), which came from novelists John Kennedy Toole (winner of the Pulitzer Prize for A Confederacy of Dunces) and Edith Wharton (her commercially successful tale of a morally dishonest upper class was written in 1905, sixteen years before she won her Pulitzer, for The Age of Innocence). Davies’ latest drama, the 2015 Sunset Song (now in U.S. release) is his kid-gloves approach to the 1932 novel by Scottish novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon [a pseudonym used by James Leslie Mitchell]. The century-old book can be a hard slog for people unfamiliar with Scottish culture and dialect; the film’s subtitles don’t always help those who haven’t read the novel, which is considered one of the most important pieces of 20th century Scottish literature. You might be able to guess the American English translation of some of the subtitled-not-translated Scottish English words (i.e., bairn = child), but you’ll have to take a leap of faith on some of the Northern English dialogue.
The film adequately covers the main themes of the book: Life, Love, Death in a small-knit farming community in north east Scotland. Supermodel turned actress Agyness Deyn (having matured considerably since her feature debut in the dismal Clash of the Titans 2010 reboot) stars as Chris Guthrie, an intelligent teenager on the cusp of womanhood in the fictional town of Kinraddie, a bucolic spot where fields of waving wheat, lush landscapes, and muted colors are captured exquisitely by director of photography Michael McDonough, shooting on location in New Zealand, Luxembourg, and Scotland. Chris lives with her parents, John and Jean, older brother Will, and some younger siblings. It’s a far-from-stable family unit. Dad, played by the Scottish actor Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, 1996; War Horse, 2011), is abominable beast, devout to the Christian extreme, and unflinching in his stern ways. Poor Chris finds her teaching ambitions stifled and any hopes of female liberation crushed by the small minds that surround her. John has an abusive relationship with his grown son Will (Jack Greenlees). Jean (Daniela Nardini) is the brood’s despondent mother who suffers through too many forced pregnancies and her husband’s unmerciful convictions. Ultimately the household is decimated enough that Chris ends up the caretaker of Blawearie, as the homestead is named, for herself and new husband (at the 90-minute mark) Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), a foreman at nearby Upperhill. Take a breath, as some days or years might flow by, then toss in a new son and some sermonizing as World War I touches the sleepy hamlet. Imagine Downton Abbey for the farm folk, but with way too much of the source material crammed into an already extended 135-minute frame.
I cannot belittle the well-defined characters that writer-director Davies moves about his scenery (although I did wonder why Chris always looked so clean). They look and act authentic enough. Yet, as soon as they get introduced in any particular scene, they ramble out their dialogue and disappear into the countryside as the plot staggers along. Hairstyles change, children grow taller, but I always felt the table was never fully set to fully celebrate (or condemn) the family and neighbors taking up chairs besides it. Yes, I do like them, although I can’t say I am as empathetic with them within the screenplay as is the Kensington, Liverpool-born director, screenwriter, novelist, and actor. Davies’ working class background, with Catholic roots long since rejected, does allow for his local clichés to float about within the film’s truncated panorama.
I suspect that American audiences won’t fully admire the stark, slow-moving notions at play in the film, which was actually planned for production some years ago, with Kirsten Dunst considered for the leading role. Davies apparently likes voice-overs, which can often break a film’s rhythm. Early in the film, after Chris, an excellent student, has been reading to her family (the camera resolutely takes a straight on POV facing each of its subjects), she is seen in a classroom taking a bursary (scholarship) exam, while we hear the book’s dialogue read over the scene. The film favors long, single takes over quick edits (I can’t remember a single one), and there are plenty of slow dissolves to ponder. Much of the “action” walks into and out of the frame, with minimalist blocking that emphasizes the starkness of the film. Even in merrier moments, such as Chris’s wedding, the dancing and frivolity plays out in front of the camera, rather than the latter swirling about the dancers. Davies might allow an occasional pan (some are 360-degree versions to indicate a flow of time) or zoom. Quite puritanical.
And Davies likes his music. In his 1992 biographical drama The Long Day Closes, he used nearly three dozen pieces of original music, often in their totality. Late in Sunset Song, the town folk walk through the countryside in unison while an off-screen choir sings the full hymn “Sheep and Lambs [All in the April Evening]” by Katherine Tynan, before Davies has the town pastor sermonize about the war.
Sunset Song is an auteur’s meditation — a sumptuous tale of the Scottish land (and landscape), of life, of love. It’s a compressed sprawling life’s tale of common folk torn by man’s intolerance and a family’s pain. And an under-nourishing meal.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.