With its sweeping 70mm exteriors and warm, nuanced performances, Sunset Song is a gripping legend told in dazzling light. Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s epic novel captures the drudgery and hardships of a so-called simpler time and frames them within a landscape of inescapable majesty. A dramatic, emotional period piece that cannot help but drift into the murky waters melodrama, Sunset Song expresses a profound love for its gentle subject and professes a deep respect for the lives of all it encompasses.
Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) was born into a life of subjection. Held back by subservience to her family, the land upon which they live, and eventually her husband, Chris battles with her identity outside of these strictly defined boundaries. The daughter to a tyrant farmer (Peter Mullan in a second excellent performance this month behind his turn as the titular character in Hector), Chris watches helplessly, day after day, as the elder beats her brother into submission and uses her mother as little more than breeding stock. Chris eventually escapes the old man and vanishes into a newfound role as a wife and mother, yet all the happiness brought on by these strange identities cannot hide a woman screaming for freedom.
In his adaption of Gibbon’s prolific novel, Davies seems to struggle with the continuation of narrative threads. Because Sunset Song is such a detailed story occurring over the course of a young woman’s formative years, he relies heavily on voice-over and elucidatory structure to fill in the gaps. These otherwise prominent departures from an immersive experience are somehow validated in conjunction with the transition from digital to 70mm film. Like walking into a fine mist that clings to one’s eyes acting as an ultra-corrective lens, these scopic shots are almost too mesmerizing to comprehend, allowing lengthy gaps in narrative to go unmissed, if not totally unnoticed. Almost undoubtedly a budgetary restriction (not everyone can afford to make a period piece like Barry Lyndon), Davies’ insistence on capturing the Scottish countryside in such breathtaking scale yields some of the most sacred moments of the film.
Primarily a story about a girl discovering herself in a world dominated by men, Sunset Song tries to give Chris a voice but cannot seem to allow her to escape the male gaze. A scene where the deeply religious girl discovers her body for the first time feels overtly fetishized by the lingering camera, and the inclusion of a silhouetted striptease is all but completely unnecessary. Even when Chris is alone with her thoughts, the camera acts as a domineering man inspecting her every move. Her only power is that of an undeterred perseverance, as even in the face of countless atrocities, she is dogged and resolute in her composure. Chris persists through the muck of life and endures into an uncertain future without hesitation or ado. Her connection to the land (and through which, her ancestry) is the only thing that grounds her in Blawearie. The landscape’s powerful draw is bewitching in its ability to keep her firmly glued to the rolling hills and green pastures without dreaming about far away places. This land is Chris’ escape, and yet it is the land that keeps her from escaping.
The poetic beauty of words and images in Sunset Song are almost enough to make us forget about the bleak life lead by the main character, and in so doing, they allow us to gain a minute appreciation of her most base struggle. Featuring a standout performance from Agyness Dean and some of the best landscape photography since Mr. Turner, Sunset Song strikes a balance between toil and ecstasy that is at once overwhelming and completely uplifting.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.