MOVIE REVIEW: Sunset Song
"SUNSET SONG"-- 3 STARS
Beloved in its homeland of Scotland, Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel "Sunset Song" is revered for its detailed and poignant tale of peasant life and the place of women during the transitional times of the early 20th century. The novel has been a long-gestating passion project for highly regarded British filmmaker Terence Davies ("Distant Lives, Still Choices"). Brought to life with moments of 65mm grandeur, his sumptuously crafted and carefully refined film adaptation is another jewel in the filmmaker's crown, though one not without its source material's difficulties.
The divine demigoddess at the core of Gibbon's "Sunset Song" is Chris Guthrie, played by emerging actress Agyness Deyn of "Pusher" and "Clash of the Titans." She is the oldest daughter of John Guthrie (Peter Mullan of "War Horse," no stranger to this type), a strict and abusive tenement farmer in The Mearns region of northeast Scotland. She enjoys her schooling and books, enough to dream of becoming a school teacher, if her necessary responsibilities at home were ever lifted. Outside of that aspiration, Chris has always found a soulful connection and solace to the land and the hard work of farm life. That bond of destiny is not shared by her older brother Will (Jack Greenlees), who finds himself commonly at odds with and at the wrong end of punishment from their father.
When tragedy and hard times beset the Guthrie family and Will leaves, two things remain constant: Chris's inner strength and the seasonal cycle of planting and harvest. When Chris gains a measure of independence to live for herself, she chooses the farm. In these middle years, which pass with pans of the camera, the weight of constant tragedy is lifted for a time from Chris (and the film). Welcome smiles, little joys, and an arch of happiness bloom. She falls for and marries the diligent Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie) and they have a son. When the country is thrust into World War I, the pressures of service, both home and abroad, threaten to tear their good life apart.
Brought to life with intentional brushstrokes of sheer beauty, Terence Davies has painted a film of consummate artistry, one that could be examined for hours to comb over every individual shot, cut, touch, angle, or detail. From the written page, Davies adapts Gibbon's journal of misfortune with a heartrending sense of poetry for the plight of this central heroine. Deyn's voiceovers as Chris speak with a sober internal monologue plagued by feelings she cannot always outwardly express as a woman of that era. Her moments of bitten tongues and held breath reveal an inspiring underlying passion. A piece of that convincing credit goes to Agyness Deyn, who's still learning on the job as a former runway model.
"Sunset Song" is gorgeous from head to toe. When the camera does leave Deyn's glowing face, it finds equally radiant indoor and outdoor scenery from production designer Andy Harris. Cinematographer Michael McDonough ("Winter's Bone"), in addition to those aforementioned natural transitions, chooses lingering shots that permeate the film's (and the novel's) somber tone and patient pace. Emotional ballads, like this one sung by Jennifer John, support a mature violin-centered score from Luxembourger jazz artist Gast Waltzing. Each artistic choice allows moments to breathe and echo without detracting from the narrative. Eat your heart out Terrance Malick. This is how you merge poetic filmmaking with feasible storytelling.
The enraptured beauty of "Sunset Song" tries to soothe a grim film of formidable, yet necessary truths. The worthy themes are tough pills to swallow, making this not an ideal choice for people looking for chipper and cheeky happy endings. A downer melodrama like this calls for appreciable respect over misplaced hopes of whimsy or delight that would soften its virtues. There's room to be impressed by its mournful mood even if it cannot move you to pieces.
LESSON #1: THE DRAW OF A MEAGER LIFESTYLE-- Contrary to many capitalist beliefs and the coming modernization during the time period of "Sunset Song," there are plenty of fine people in this world who are perfectly content and sustained by simpler life paths, homes, and occupations. Not everyone is wired for constant advancement, acquisition, and accumulation of riches. Look no further than the rural perspective of Chris Guthrie.
LESSON #2: THE CHOICES MADE BY A WOMAN'S INDEPENDENCE-- Where there is clear comfort within Chris's modest lifestyle, there remains conflicts and choices. Even with the enlightenment and self-motivation to become a teacher, ingrained expectations and pressures still have Chris forego the window to fulfill that dream, placing her on the path towards a traditional "woman's place" role as solely a wife and mother. Sadly, that route was the prevailing reality for a majority of women in the early 20th century. Even today, plenty will tell you there's no shame in that commendable calling while others cannot fathom such a lack of personal independence.