Based on the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song is brought to life by Terrance Davis, director of The Deep Blue Sea and The House of Mirth: a filmmaker renowned for his ‘measured’ pace and ‘symphonic’ structure.
Opening on a vast corn field, the simmering sounds of countryside in the summer ripple through the meditative stillness. It’s a peaceful film, and seems determined to maintain this hypnotic atmosphere throughout… perhaps too stubbornly. Forced, fractured silence pulses through almost every scene that follows as the story plods along; the resonance of the plot dwindling as slowly as the over used crossfades.
Sunset Song had the potential to be a riveting film. Set within the stunning landscape of rural Scotland in the early 20th Century, the trailer promised an exciting, tragic tale of love, courage and war, revolving around the coming of age of young farm girl, Chrissie Guthrie (played by Agyness Deyn). Re-watching it now, it feels as though the trailer condensed all the poignant moments the story had to offer in one brief montage. The film had a sleepy, almost lulling ambience about it, though this had the effect of smothering the plot. It consumed any hopes of excitement with its heavy self-indulgence, to the point that the pace of the film almost became draining.
Having said that, the cinematography was incredible; the boundless, lush countryside almost being granted a regal status through Davis’ extensive panning shots. The landscape arguably becomes a character in itself, interweaving between scenes with a brooding, ethereal quality. Some of my favourite moments in the film were when Chrissie’s narration was overlaid on top of this glossy, majestic world, proving to be both evocative and moving: ‘Scotland lived, she could never die, the land would outlast them all’. However, sometimes it felt as though these shots were wasted on a badly structured narrative – its sole purpose simply being to capture the opulence of the character’s surroundings.
There were some strong performances, most notably from Peter Mullan, who played Chrissie’s violently tyrannical father and also leading lady, Agyness Deyn. Despite having to carry the whole film and appearing in almost every scene, I thought she succeeded beautifully, breathing life into a strong female character that was both vulnerable and inspiringly audacious within the stifling confines of an oppressive culture.
Despite being bogged down by a dull, nostalgic haze that consequently crippled Sunset Song, the ideas explored are complex, particularly the stirring concept that human life is insignificant and that only the landscape will transcend time. The film hasn’t dissuaded me from wanting to read Gibbon’s acclaimed novel – in a way, it’s only made me want to read it more! The disoriented narrative structure of Davis’ direction forms an ultimately sluggish movie, awkwardly clumping together the broken pieces of a compelling story that would likely, if told differently, be a very touching cinematic experience.