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
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.
Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie in Sunset Song