Sunset Song Review
Terence Davies has been making films for about 40 years and, for much of that time, his work has been invested with a strong sense of his own personality and history. His most acclaimed work is set in his hometown of Liverpool, including 1988’s Distant Voices, Still Lives, and is virtually autobiographical, distinctly dreamlike. His films are arguably the closest thing to capturing the very nature of memory on film, at least in Western cinema. And he does this without a shred of self-deprecating sentimentality, a rare skill, one perhaps shared with Alan Bennett (The Lady in the Van).
The consummate manner with which we know he can so keenly build a narrative, adversely means that the long awaited Sunset Song is largely underwhelming. The nearly 300 miles from his beloved Liverpool appears to be detrimental, the story unfolding predictably and without his distinctive voice.
It’s not as if adapting another writer’s work should have been the undoing; his Deep Blue Sea was an entirely successful, sharp and passionate adaptation of a Terence Ratigan play. Is it possible that he treated Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic book as a little too precious and untouchable? Or that it so fitted his own template, he couldn't see how to interpret it other than head-on. The result does feel like a presentation. All of his usual elements are intact and it is typically a feminine story, one that considers the role of a woman. His previous films have always featured strong women, his mother a recurring figure, his father conspicuous by absence.
Therefore Peter Mullan's role of an abusive father is of interest. It is only his ferocious performance that provides any contrast or grit. He is given space and his character's actions condemned only through narrative.
Despite a sweet and engaging performance in the lead role, Agyness Deyn simply doesn't have the range or experience to carry the film as far as needed. Yet the story rests entirely with her character, Chris, a cheerful girl, always denied real happiness until she can accept to be content. Sunset Song follows her from the young and ambitious student giving up her future for the sake of family, to losing that family, gaining another and becoming the strong, independent woman that has to face up to a far-off war changing everything forever.
It's a grim tale that feels like a grind with scant room for humour, but Davies has a unique quality of pacing and delivery that allows an undercurrent of hope. There is an irresistible honesty throughout, however the lack of real reward tries the patience. It is at least a story about the land and our relationship with it, and in showing us that land, Davies reliably excels.
The film’s photography is remarkable, at times achingly beautiful. Michael McDonough exceeds even his own substantial work on Winter's Bone and with Davies’ direction, the film is brought to life. The lighting in particular is perfectly judged, every scene a lesson in composition. Be it a fierce storm, a sunny afternoon, fields burning at night or sunlight simply falling upon furniture as dawn breaks, the film's heart is in its considerable cinematography. It shows the land as a reliable if harsh constant; and as if the embody the story, the photography glides smoothly while the narrative stumbles.
Albeit it more subtle, the score and traditional music are noteworthy. It wouldn't be a Terence Davies film without a traditional sing-song! Deep Blue Sea could almost have been a musical in all but name and Sunset Song inherits the same timing. It may even be Davies’ most poetic film. There are brief occasionally narrated passages from Chris rounding off an aesthetic capable of being sublime.
It's such a shame the plot is so routine and lifeless by comparison, the cast unable to drive it home. Still, there's a chance the genuine merits of the film will shine through eventually. One of Davies’ most enduring qualities is his ability to create period films with an ironically timeless cinematic feel and perhaps it is vulgar to expect a film of his to be a success immediately! Certainly there are few films that touch on the subject of how war can affect society with such clarity, albeit briefly in this plots case. Juenet’s A Very Long Engagement for instance is cloying and sentimental by comparison.
Ultimately Sunset Song a flawed film. The Blu-ray is nevertheless strongly recommended, the Scottish landscapes proving to be of demonstration quality. It is as handsome a film as you are likely to see.