Like a Scottish Gone With the Wind or How Green Was my Valley, Sunset Song is a beautiful drama of an epic scale, not necessarily in the scope of the story, but in the breathtaking images of the Scottish landscape. Poetic narration, complex characters, and not a shortage on melodrama make Terence Davies’ coming-of-age tale worthy of consideration.
Set in the era of the 1910s, the film follows Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the quietly intelligent daughter of a violent Scottish patriarch (Peter Mullan). The drunkard runs his family and his farm like a dictator, but this isn’t a story about him. This is entirely Chris’ story, almost a visual diary, which we are made privy to through the miracle of cinema. Intimate and contemplative, the camera follows Chris through her journey of hope and disillusionment, suffering and survival, love and pain. The film’s first half feels like a downward spiral into despair as Chris’ family members disappear from her life, one by one, until she’s essentially alone in the world with a farm to manage. The second half takes a romantic turn when Chris encounters Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a young man she eventually marries and settles into a new rhythm of life. But Chris’ life is plagued by terrible interruptions, outside circumstances impeding on her ideals. When World War I arrives and steals her joy, there are no more constants, apart from the land where she resides and wanders.
The land. The land is a character in itself, the fields of grain and the rolling green hills playing a larger role than simply a backdrop to Chris’ journey. The land is an anchor, an eternal constant in Chris’ ever-tumultuous life where human relationships seem to come and go with the wind. The wind blows over the land, the rains fall with a steady rhythm, but the land remains. From the dust we came, and to the dust we’ll return. I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. The cinematography of Sunset Song captures this transcendent goodness of the earth before.
The moments of joy in Chris’ life are celebrated with a quiet dignity, and the film honors these moments with a sense of the sacred. Whether she is intimate with her husband or simply walking through a field of grain, there’s a sense of serenity even in the midst of underlying turmoil or pain. Yet in a stark contrast, the final moments of pain and suffering are so melodramatic as to be overblown, even farcical. Mullan’s violent drunk of a father isn’t remarkably new, particularly in Mullan’s own filmic history–he’s done this character before. So the film’s final 30 minutes were essentially ruined for me by a character’s dramatic swing from charm to violence in mimicking Mullan’s performance, perhaps in an attempt to suggest, here we go again. The character’s change is so sudden and the performance so over-the-top as to bring me wholly out of the movie. What was a meditative and beautiful story spirals in its final act, where the narrative suddenly switches from Chris to this other unrealistic character whom we are supposed to pity. By then, I was just hoping the film would be over. When Chris is tossed to the sidelines, the film’s magic implodes.
It’s sad, really. For the most part, Terence Davies has crafted a meticulous and intimate portrayal of a young woman’s emergence and identity formation in a small corner of the world. The camera often pans away from her to peer through windows at the land just outside, the reminder of something eternal and beautiful and good. I only wish the entire film maintained such beauty.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2262161/