SUNSET SONG, drama, rated R, in Scottish dialect with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts,
Everything about the new adaptation by British director Terence Davies of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel of Scotland in the early 20th century, is beautiful. It has the epic sprawl of a
but set in the hardscrabble milieu of rural Scotland in the years leading up and into World War I. Its Scarlett O’Hara is Chris Guthrie, a tall, willowy, bookish girl, played with spirit by newcomer Agyness Deyn, a former model. The countryside of Aberdeenshire, captured on 70mm film (the interiors were shot digitally) by cinematographer Michael McDonough, is vast and wild and ravishing, and the Guthrie farm, Blawearie, holds the same place in the hearts and minds (and many references) of its inhabitants as their much grander plantation did for the O’Haras. When you hear a line like “A queer thought came to her — nothing endures but the land,” it’s easy to find yourself transported back to Tara.
The natural beauty is in striking counterpoint to the primitive fierceness of life on the bonny banks and braes of the Scottish northeast. Chris’ father, John Guthrie (Peter Mullan), is a flinty, brutal religious fundamentalist who mercilessly beats his grown son Will (Jack Greenlees) for minor infractions, and keeps impregnating his long-suffering wife, Jean (Daniela Nardini), until she can’t take it any more.
When her parents die and her brother leaves home, Chris, not yet twenty, takes hold of Blawearie. Eventually she finds romance, with the shy, sweet Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), and their tenderness and passion make you wonder whether Chris’ parents could have started out anything like that, and whether a similar decline awaits these young lovers.
The war comes, and brings with it the ugly strains of jingoism, shaming, and death. This section makes a powerful anti-war statement, but it also brings an odd and unconvincing character development that has to been seen to be disbelieved.
Davies gives us many lovely scenes, and many harsh dramatic ones, but he can’t seem to maintain a smooth narrative flow. is like a patchwork of exquisite pieces stitched together, many of them separately arresting, but not creating a satisfying whole. The story proceeds in fits and starts, veering off into digressions, slowing, and lapsing into portentous silences underlined by deep cello strains.
The prose of Gibbon’s novel is delivered through a sporadic narrative, voiced by Chris somewhat disconcertingly in the third person (“She was no longer afraid, only sad for the father she never helped, and forgot how to love.”). What works in context on the page doesn’t always translate to the film medium. The dialogue is rendered in an authentic north-country brogue, and occasionally it can be tough on the American ear, but not so much that it justifies the decision to render the entire movie with subtitles. — Jonathan Richards