starring Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie
written and directed by Terence Davies
by Angelo Muredda If ever a film deserved to close with not a modest writing credit but an ostentatious "Adapted by," it's Terence Davies's Sunset Song, a characteristically moving and plaintive take on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel about a young woman riding out the turbulent waves of turn-of-the-century Scotland. Davies has now logged more adaptations than autobiographical works, but it's frivolous to guess which strand of his filmography is the more personal, given the way he infuses even the most cobwebbed Great Book with his signature melancholy. For all its literary pretensions, Sunset Song is as steeped in domestic, regional, and national reminiscence--both fond and tortured--as Davies's most ostensibly intimate works, like his acerbic but loving first-person ode to Liverpool Of Time and the City. And though it will surely be deemed minor by some because of its muted register (compared to the more rapturous aesthetic of The Deep Blue Sea), the film is, in its more understated way, as resonant and gutting a statement as any Davies has made about how living means being in thrall to the past.
British model Agyness Deyn plays the long-suffering but sturdily-built heroine Chris, a rural maid who's tied to the land but hopes for a career as a teacher, which might just take her elsewhere. Raised in an abusive household and fated to feel the aftershocks of that abuse her whole life, Chris's future seems scripted by her parents' past. Peter Mullan adds another boorish wastrel to his resumé as Chris's father, a violent patriarch who only cares for his children insofar as he can either dominate or groom them, and who casually treats Chris's depressed mother (Daniela Nardini), an outsider observes, like a broodmare. Chris's hopes for redemption understandably lie outside the home, pointing eventually to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a poor suitor whose sweet temperament is inevitably soured by his conscription to the First World War.
At some risk, Davies keeps the novel's lyrical narration, care of Chris's lilting voiceover. There's a danger at first that these passages, interpolated by Deyn at some length, will feel like the cocksure and overly-pleased delivery of a star called in to animate a big book on tape. (One need only think of Chris's beautiful but unmistakably written pronouncement, following her mother's sudden death, that "The dark quiet corpse that was her childhood was folded in the tissue paper and laid away forever.") But there's a delicacy of touch and an aversion to the literal in the way Davies renders Gibbon's thematics about the corruptions of war that's all his own. Although Chris's narration takes great pains to align her with the country she sprouted from, that sense of symbiosis and that implicit critique of the way displacement from one's land provokes a crisis of identity is evoked most potently not in any words but in the way Ewan's face is irrevocably changed from the eve of his enlistment the moment he returns.
Davies's masterly shorthand at capturing such subtle shifts is one of his definitive traits as an artist, and it's in fine form here. Consider how Chris's mother's pained yelps in an offscreen sexual assault early on seamlessly give way to her cries in labour, or how a tender and frank sex scene between Chris and her new husband is later rhymed with another assault--the camera sheepishly panning away in the first scene, as if to preserve her dignity, and shrinking beneath the bed in the second, as if ashamed to be privy to such an ugly episode. While his humanistic vision--and, more concretely, his soft lighting and penchant for old pop songs of yore--have branded him a quality filmmaker drawn to pretty things, one is struck here by Davies's sensitivity and intelligence in looking squarely, as he's done from Distant Voices, Still Lives on, at a certain strain of male ugliness.
Where Sunset Song strays from Davies's skill set is in its surprisingly cursory depiction of the First World War, which looms over Chris's salad days before fully possessing her adulthood in the last act, changing her husband and narrowing her prospects once again. As he's done so capably before (in, for instance, the bombed-out subway singalong in The Deep Blue Sea), Davies tries to capture something of the collective grief of war through the persistence of song from peacetime to wartime, in this case dwelling on Ewan's flickering memory of something Chris sang on their wedding night. The impact of what ought to be a meaningful callback is blunted somewhat by the suddenness with which Ewan becomes a subject in his own right rather than a paintbrush in Chris's emotional colour kit. Like his best films, Sunset Song is strongest when taking in this wider world through the teary but resilient eyes of its focalizer, played to near perfection by Deyn, who imagines Chris as a stately survivor, bent and riven into separate selves by trauma, yet not quite broken.