A model of Scot­tish mis­ery

Bru­tal dad, worse hus­band, chil­dren dy­ing, a wife’s sui­cide – no one could ac­cuse Davies of light­en­ing the mood, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM REVIEWS -

SUN­SET SONG ★★★ Di­rected by Ter­ence Davies. Star­ring Ag­y­ness Deyn, Peter Mul­lan, Kevin Guthrie, Jack Green­lees, Ian Pirie, Niall Greig Ful­ton, Jack Green­lees. 16 cert, lim­ited release, 135 min

Be re­as­sured. The lat­est Ter­ence Davies film does in­volve at least one sen­ti­men­tal singsong. There is a bru­tal fa­ther whose tyran­ni­cal rages ap­pear to leave last­ing psy­cho­log­i­cal scars on his un­for­tu­nate chil­dren. The film brims with sym­pa­thy for the mis­used women trapped in pa­tri­ar­chal Hades. In those senses, Sun­set Song, based on a Scot­tish novel by Lewis Gras­sic Gib­bon, is very much in the tra­di­tion of Dis­tant Voices Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Un­for­tu­nately, the film rarely at­tains the mis­er­able poetry of those ear­lier clas­sics. Too much feels closed-in by faith­ful­ness to a text with lim­ited cin­e­matic po­ten­tial. So many scenes oc­cur ei­ther side of the kitchen ta­ble that, at times, Sun­set Song takes on the qual­ity of a pe­riod but­ter com­mer­cial. It has magic, of course – Michael McDonough’s cam­era loves the ru­ral scenery but it’s as if a lesser film-maker had im­ported in­flu­ences from Davies to en­hance a fal­ter­ing project.

The stat­uesque some­time-model Ag­y­ness Deyn ac­quits her­self well enough as Chris Guthrie, daugh­ter to a harsh farmer played with cus­tom­ary re­pressed men­ace by the al­ways wel­come Peter Mul­lan. We are in Aberdeen­shire in the years be­fore the first World War. One of Davies’s tra­di­tional sex­ual tyrants, Mr Guthrie ex­hibits no sym­pa­thy for his wife’s weari­ness at be­ing in an al­most con­stant state of preg­nancy. The pres­sure be­comes too much and she takes her own life and those of her young twins. He is equally wretched to his son, whom he ham­mers bru­tally for “tak­ing the Lord’s name in vain”.

In Davies’s autobiographical films, child­hood mis­ery is coun­ter­pointed by the warmth of city life and, in par­tic­u­lar, the plea­sures of the cin­ema. There is less re­lief here. Chris stud­ies hard at school with a mind to be­com­ing a teacher. The sweep­ing fields and loom­ing moun­tains of­fer some spir­i­tual up­lift. This is, nonethe­less, a pen­e­trat­ingly re­pres­sive uni­verse.

Even­tu­ally, the hero­ine finds her­self in charge of the farm and falls in love with an ap­par­ently nice young man called Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). But the war is loom­ing.

Davies is not renowned as a sto­ry­teller. The early films moved from im­pres­sion to im­pres­sion. The Deep Blue Sea, his agree­able last pic­ture, in­her­ited a good well-made play by Ter­ence Rat­ti­gan. Here, he has bat­tered the lin­ear text into a script that too of­ten gives in to clunky di­a­logue. “They say par­lia­ment is plan­ning to bring in a con­scrip­tion act,” Chris says to her hus­band, min­utes be­fore he is shipped off to a war that turns a kindly man into yet an­other sex­u­ally abu­sive front-par­lour brute. There’s more where that came from.

What to say of Deyn? It’s a sin­gu­larly odd per­for­mance. The Man­cu­nian makes a good fist of the Scot­tish ac­cent. Tow­er­ing over stu­dents and teach­ers, she can, how­ever, do noth­ing to seem con­vinc­ing as a teenager. Later, she gains a kind of stoic dig­nity, but Deyn never man­ages to lo­cate any an­gles to the char­ac­ter. She is de­fined by the (gen­er­ally aw­ful) things that hap­pen to her.

Sun­set Song ex­cels in its lus­cious de­pic­tions of ru­ral Scot­land. Davies al­lows the cam­era to slowly trace the pas­sage of sun­light across fields and through dusty win­dows. There’s a spir­i­tu­al­ity to na­ture that un­der­cuts the vi­cious tra­di­tional re­li­gion of Chris’s ap­palling fa­ther.

In the film’s clos­ing mo­ments, it at­tains a mourn­ful sig­nif­i­cance that will be favourably de­scribed in sub­se­quent aca­demic stud­ies of this sin­gu­lar film-maker. The mu­sic surges. Nostal­gia for the past fights back against the era’s un­for­giv­ing, un­re­lent­ing claus­tro­pho­bia. We are re­minded that Davies is at his best when, freed from con­strain­ing source ma­te­rial, he is al­lowed to be his own odd self. He’s now shoot­ing a biopic of Emily Dick­in­son. That could go ei­ther way.

Way­ward flock

Ag­y­ness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie in Sun­set Song

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