Like his past work, Terence Davies’ Sunset Song sets aglow dusty memories of the past, telling a feminist story of domestic liberation that’s mythological in theme and scale despite taking place in a lonely homestead on the outskirts of rural Scotland in the early 20th century. No one does period drama quite like Davies, and his latest effort is just as transportive and lyrical as his previous work, though the story develops in a sort of inelegant, stilted way that doesn’t pay the strong-willed heroine at its center due justice.
The beating heart of the tale is a peasant farm girl, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), tender as can be and wise beyond her years. Her strength of spirit and nurturing nature stem from a horrific upbringing under her emotionally and physically abusive father (a heart-stoppingly terrifying Peter Mullan). We watch years pass at the Guthrie home, Blawearie, as Chris’ sweet older brother (Jack Greenlees) flees their father’s tyranny for a new life in Aberdeen, and their beloved mother makes her escape under more tragic circumstances.
Chris, however, is a survivor. She wrests control of her life away from her father and outlives him, inheriting their home whose walls and floorboards know only the sound of fear and resentment. Determined to fill Blawearie with nothing but love for the rest of her days, she finds marries a lovely young man, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), with whom she starts a new family. Catastrophe never relents, however, as the storm cloud of World War I casts its shadow over their remote corner of Scotland, drawing poor Ewan into the fray. He proves to not have his wife’s mettle, however, returning from war a broken man who’s lost the will to love.
Based on the first book in a trilogy by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the film unfolds in chapters, a mode of storytelling that doesn’t have the narrative fluidity one would expect from such a proven director. The scenes feel intimate and intense on their own, but the way they’re organized and sequenced is so studied that it creates an unwelcome sense of distance, as if we’re peering in on Chris’ story from afar rather than living it with her. The story loses its grip for uncomfortably long stretches of time, which can largely be attributed to many of the themes falling flat. Postfeminist ideas and subtle ruminations on Scottish identity, which should be more interesting, often come across as corny or shoehorned. There’s something bloodless and linear about Davies’ approach, as if he’s leading us by the hand like a chaperone would a child through a museum.
Still, the British filmmaker speaks from the heart in spurts. Soft storybook voiceovers from Deyn add poetic texture to the narrative, but what truly elevates the film is the elemental framing of the tale. Davies offers views of the verdant landscapes–cloudy, blue-green skies; verdant, rolling hills; serene, glassy lakes–to heighten emotions and temper the sometimes overbearing melodrama. “Nothing endured but the land,” we hear Chris say over images of tilled fields. “Sea, sky and the folk who lived there were but a breath. But the land endured…she was the land.” Sweeping, heart-rending moments like these are Davies’ specialty, and the incredible photography (partly shot in 70mm) that drives them is the film’s greatest boon.
As the story’s rock, Deyn is a bit wooden, though she navigates Chris’ journey from vivacious teen to thick-skinned domestic guardian pretty well, and she’s got a terrific, natural screen presence. Some of her finest moments are when she’s emoting with her body, helping her father with field work or holding her beaten brother in her arms. Enough can’t be said of Mullan’s performance, which is so traumatizing it actually goes further to define Chris’ make-up than most of the scenes that follow his character’s exit. As the film rolls on without him, his presence can still be felt, as if his ghost continues to stalk Chris around Blawearie. His echo rings loudest in the voice and eyes of the war-torn Ewan, who breaks his dutiful wife’s heart by subjecting her to the same violent abuse she swore she’d never endure again.
Sunset Song doesn’t explore the nature of femininity with the dimension or color of Davies’ The House of Mirth or The Deep Blue Sea, but it’s still an occasionally affecting film that’s at least less aesthetically dreary and grey than his previous efforts.