Sunset Song Review
It is clear even in the opening frames of Terence Davies’ Sunset Song (2015) that this is a film all about the beauty and power of nature. Opening on a vast, golden wheat field blowing in a summery breeze, Davies immediately makes the most of the Scottish landscapes at his disposal while also introducing us to the free-spirited Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who suddenly emerges from the wheat as if she has been born from the very land itself. Touches like this show the obvious care and love that Davies has put into this passion project of his, the writer-director meticulously drawing us into Chris’ dreamy rural world and placing us right alongside her. Yet despite all of this, Sunset Song sits uneasily alongside Davies' previous works – a project that always impresses, but that never truly soars.
Adapted from the Lewis Grassic Gibbon book, Sunset Song is regarded as one of the most important Scottish novels of the 20th Century. And although there is certainly no denying that the story is a classic, it is a tale we’ve seen many times before. Girl comes of age, struggles to overcome many hardships, falls in love, and finds even more hardships along the way: Sunset Song treads familiar ground, and sadly feels this way in the film too. Davies seems reluctant to explore the narrative in much depth in his script, hitting all the plot points but never daring to dig beneath the surface, making this an adaptation that seems recycled rather than fresh or different. Yet where the film does work is in Davies' choice to get to the heart of the characters and their relationships, the writer-director often emphasising the quiet moments between them. The result is a beautifully lyrical film that still manages to capture the essence of Gibbon’s story, and which keeps us watching until the final breathtaking frame.
While his script stops the action from plodding along too much, it is Davies strong, confident direction and compelling imagery that truly breathes life into Sunset Song. Every frame is meticulously designed and shot, gorgeous imagery pulling you in at every moment. This cinematography tells the story as much as Davies’ script does, the images changing as Chris matures and her life changes; sunny golds and lush greens making way for dark mud and grey rain – an ingenious idea that is fascinating to watch and which is truly enhanced by the Blu-ray visuals of this disc. There is also a tranquillity to these images: not a bird tweet, or a breeze, or even a chair creak is missed, every sound heightening the overall peacefulness of the visuals, and in turn the etherealness of this hypnotic rural land.
These painterly images often stand back from the scene, taking in the action and the landscapes as Davies coaxes superb performances from his actors that still resonate with the viewer despite them rarely being shown in close-up. Agyness Deyn is perfect as Chris, her subtle yet emotional performance cutting through the sugary romance of the story and truly getting to the heart and soul of the character. She is expertly matched by Kevin Guthrie as the love interest, who brings a grit and realism to this which is brilliantly captured onscreen, especially evident in one particular scene that plays off his anguished facial expressions alone.
And yet for all of these positives, Sunset Song is never as fascinating or immersive as Davies’ other films. While this is a grandiose adaptation filled with beautiful imagery and compelling performances, and a film which still marks Davies as one of the greatest directors in the industry, something is missing from the finished product – a depth to the overall narrative that would have made this seem unique rather than something we’ve seen many times before. The disappointment you feel after watching this is also extended to the extras on this Blu-ray disc. While presentation is typically excellent for the film, you might expect to see a short feature on Davies’ creative process and the overall production, but sadly all we get is a free e-book download of Sunset Song and two other Gibbon novels – great for comparing and contrasting this to the source material, but not exactly what you hoped for: a statement that perfectly sums up the film itself.