Joyce Glasser reviews Sunset Song
Terence Davies, the Liverpudian auteur who makes unhurried, symphonic movies about coming-of-age in 1950s Liverpool, authoritarian fathers, repressive religion and lives of forbearance without passion, has, at age 70, made a film of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ much loved 1932 rites of passage saga, Sunset Song. Though Sunset Song is engrossing, and looks stunning, the emotionally-stymied adaptation is less satisfying than it should be.
Sunset Song tells the story of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a physically and mentally strong young woman dreams of leaving the farm to become a teacher. This goal seems to be prompted as much by her love of books as a fear of ending up like her long-suffering mother. But her mother, who churns out babies for her despotic husband (Peter Mullan) needs her daughter’s help with her younger siblings and it is Chris’s beloved brother Will (Jack Greenlees) who flees to escape their father’s savage beatings. A tragedy that leaves Chris alone with her father provides the ideal moment to escape, but when he succumbs to a stroke she remains behind as his carer.
When Chris finally is free to leave, she decides that she is too attached to the land and relishes the challenge of running the farm with her new husband, the affable farmhand Ewan (Kevin Guthrie, excellent). Here Sunset Song resembles, in tone at least, Days of Heaven, as Chris and Ewan work the farm in sexual bliss and produce a wee bairn. Then, as if on cue, WWI rears its ugly head and Ewan, a Pacifist, is pressured into signing up.
Softening Gibbons’ hard-edged, unsparing novel, Michael McDonough’s sumptuous anamorphic 65 mm cinematography of corn fields and forest lanes and Davies’ long takes on picturesque country scenes invite comparisons with Terrence Mallick’s Days of Heaven more than with Gibbons’ gritty novel.
Though the corn harvesting scenes were shot in New Zealand and the interiors in Luxembourg for financial reasons, it is less the locations than the sanitised portrait of the Guthrie farm that depart from the novel. A scene in which Chris goes out to tend to the horses in a rain storm is reminiscent of the haystack scene in Far from the Madding Crowd, but Chris never seems cold or wet. What should be a truly shocking scene – the fate of Chris’s mother and new born children – is referred to briskly rather than dramatised emphatically so that its true horror fails to register. Chris’s father is such a cliché of a tyrant that he is less frightening than he should be.
Davies (Of Time and the City Distant Voices, Still Lives, the Long Day Closes) is usually associated with urban life, and while his film is beautiful to look at and never boring, neither he, nor his heroine, ever convince us of their ties to the land. Chris never persuades us that she is passionate about her homestead in the way that Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara does in Gone with the Wind. Statuesque, with porcelain skin and piano-player hands, Deyn strides like a model and towers over most of the actors in the film. Deyn may be a better actress than Cara Delevingne or Keira Knightley, but it is hard to read what she is feeling and her smiles are off-putting.
Two of the themes of the novel, the agonising choice between farm girl or teacher and the disappearing way of life, are so played down in the film as to create confusion. In Edgar Reitz’s exhilarating epic Home from Home: Chronicle of a Vision, released earlier this year, his protagonist is a book worm who dreams of emigrating to South America but is stuck on his overbearing father’s farm. That protagonist’s love/hate relationship with traditional life and the farm and his desire to travel and study create an unbearable tension that is absent here.
While the title, Sunset Song, only makes sense as a metaphor for the end of a way of life, the symbols of mechanisation and the encroachment of modern ways that are present in the novel are all but ignored in the film. Even the devastation of World War feels less like a sea change than the culmination of Chris’s unfulfilled, hard life.
Whether Davies ran out of time or interest, the final quarter of the film, when Evan goes off to war, is, to put it bluntly, botched. Even acknowledging the effects shell shock and post traumatic stress, Ewan’s personality change seems too drastic and sudden to be credible, while the whole business of his desertion (given the predictable punishment in WWI) is so confusing that we are denied an emotionally satisfying ending. That said, the final, long shot of rain water filling up a riverbed is quite stunning, if reminiscent of that other Terrence’s film The New World.