Terence Davies’ journey to bring Sunset Song to the big screen is arguably as epic as Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s source text. Davies initially intended for this to be his fifth feature back in the year 2000, following the acclaim bestowed upon him for his grand if gloomy adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But the British auteur struggled desperately to find the finances necessary to build his vision – both the BBC and the UK Film Council rejected proposals for funding – and so it is only now, some 15 years later, that we finally get to see the fruits of his fortitude.
Blending 70mm exterior shots with interiors captured on digital film, DP Michael McDonough crafts a timeless image that allows Davies to advance towards the future as he continues to acknowledge the past. A parallel with Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the young heroine at the heart of Gibbon’s 1930s novel, who must continue to draw from the ancient landscape she’s familiar with whilst being forced to confront an uncertain destiny.
When we first meet Chris, her intelligence and independence single her out as someone who’s certain to succeed. Shackled by the domestic constraints dictated by her religiously fanatical father (Peter Mullan), however, and compelled by her love of the land, Chris struggles to break free. Growing into womanhood, she soon falls in love with a young farmhand called Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), and seeks to start her own family, just as the clouds of global conflict begin to gather overhead.
Davies was inspired to tackle Gibbon’s tale having become enamoured with the BBC’s televisual treatment of the story, which was broadcast back in 1971; a broader structure that was far more forgiving to the saga’s dense details. Faced with the constrictions of cinema, Davies struggles as both writer and director to compress Gibbon’s prose, and as such this weighty but worthwhile thesis on the onset of modernisation and the devastating impact of war fails to be realised. The slow and staggered set-up, supplemented by a stilted script and needless narration sit solemnly – earnestly acted & directed, but emotionally barren.
There is, however, a pure perennial beauty to Sunset Song. The vast visual compositions of rural Scotland are handsomely photographed and breathtaking to behold, the soft crayon colours of the home adding warmth and security. Yet such optical cordiality is constantly belied by the coldness of Davies’ shrill and sterile melody, the most horrisonant of harmonies.
Director: Terence Davies
Writers: Lewis Grassic Gibbon (novel), Terence Davies (screenplay)
Stars: Peter Mullan, Agyness Deyn, Ron Donachie
Runtime: 135 mins
Country: UK, Luxembourg