Directed by Terence Davies
Written by Terence Davies, based on a novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
136 minutes, rated M
It has taken Terence Davies 18 years to bring Sunset Song to the screen, but it was worth it. To have made one masterpiece in your career is an achievement and he did that with Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988; he did it again four years later with The Long Day Closes. Those were both drawn from the hearth of his own working class upbringing in Liverpool. The autobiography was part of what made them great, but Sunset Song is about a bookish girl growing up on a farm in Aberdeenshire before the First World War – and it’s just as achingly beautiful and powerful as the earlier two. Clearly, that is not a life that Davies knew by experience, but there is an emotional connection.
All three movies are about community – his special subject. In the earlier movies it was about the Catholic poor of Liverpool cleaving to each other, singing their sorrows away in pubs or celebrating at home around a piano. The music was integral to the narrative, as it was to these people, the butter on their bread. Sunset Song takes place in a completely different place and time – and a different kind of community – but the music binds the story together in a similar way. It’s even there in the title.
The novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon came out in 1932. The writer’s real name was James Leslie Mitchell. He was a socialist and a journalist who worked for Farmer’s Weekly in Scotland, which may explain the source for much of this story. After the initial shock about its frankness and violence, the novel was acclaimed as one of the greatest ever written about Scotland. Mitchell wrote a trilogy; all three were adapted by the BBC through the 1970’s and ‘80’s.
Terence Davies started working on it before he did The House of Mirth in 2000. That is has taken this long to get the money tells us something about the funding climate in the UK for his kind of impeccably artistic work. That is more than a shame: when one of the greatest living British directors can only make a new film every five years, something is wrong with the model.
Sunset Song has an epic grandeur, both in look and tone. It is one of the most ravishing films I have seen, courtesy of Michael McDonough’s landscape cinematography, partly because the film is about the importance of land. Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) sits in a field of wheat in the first sequence, like a golden-haired maiden in a 19th century painting. Her life is rather less idyllic: a domineering, violent father (Peter Mullan) who thrashes her older brother Will (Jack Greenlees) for taking the Lord’s name in vain.
There are also two younger boys to feed on the farm’s meagre income. When Jean Guthrie (Daniela Nardini) falls pregnant again, a tragedy follows. It’s not the last time, but the film has two distinct halves, and a longer arc than we have seen for a while. That’s part of what makes it so enveloping. A sort of Presbyterian Gone with the Wind, without the hysteria.
It may seem an odd comparison but the tone of Sunset Song is worthy of John Ford, at his most elegaic. Not the John Ford of wan humour and fake Irish accents, but the one who gave us the dance sequence in My Darling Clementine (1946) and the opening minutes of How Green Was My Valley (1941), set in a Welsh mining village.
Davies mounts a scene half way through Sunset Song in which everyone for miles around comes to the church: it expresses in poetic terms the complete world of these people, without words. The church dominates them, comforts them, terrifies them. When war breaks out, the pastor condemns from the pulpit those who are slow to join up. The war changes everything, even here, in a small farming village on the edge of the Scottish highlands.