Sunset Song Review: A Rewarding Trek Toward Identity

Terrence Davies’s Sunset Song presents an arduous but rewarding journey for both its characters and its audience. Davies’s direction is sometimes overly and needlessly stylistic – something such a lengthy story cannot afford. Still, the film’s beauty, both in image and message alike, shine through. Sunset Song asks a great deal from its audience, and its result is a meaningful examination on maintaining one’s identity during a time in which, as the film itself states, “everything was changing.”

Sunset Song follows the life of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) and her struggle to find and maintain an authentic identity, from her adolescence into adulthood in early 20th century Scotland. We meet Chris in the opening shot of the film. The teenage girl rises from a field of grain as if she were part of the very land itself, though she desires to be elsewhere. Throughout her struggles with a brutal father and a changing world, she grows to find her own self. Davies constantly engages us in questions of both Chris’s identity and that of the other characters. At the end of her journey, Chris echoes back to that first shot, declaring her deep connection to the land.

 

Not only does such a journey lend itself to the epic-genre format of Sunset Song, but indeed it requires this format. We cannot fully understand a character’s identity until we can look back at the start of his or her personal journey with nostalgia. We cannot fully understand Chris’s father’s seemingly one-dimensional brutality until we see it mirrored in her husband, Ewyn (Kevin Guthrie) over an hour later. It is a format that takes as much time and patience as farming the land which Chris loves so dearly, but is necessary for the audience and characters to take their journey together.

Sunset Song faithfully adopts this epic format, but Davies does not seem to quite realize the strain that it puts on an audience. We are forced to endure long stretches of pure style devoid of narrative value, which, though pleasant to admire, do nothing to further the story or to invest the audience in its characters. A film of this unhurried pace can spare no room for such frivolities.

Davies makes further stylistic blunders in his attempt to faithfully adapt the atmosphere of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel of the same name. The dialogue is awkwardly novelistic. We struggle to connect to the characters subjectively, and it seems that each time the audience is given enough time to accept this style, Davies inserts unnecessary narration to remind us that none of this is real. Moviegoers often hear complaints of films failing to remain true to their originators, but Davies could have suffered some compromises.

The cast delivers the dialogue the best it can but ultimately fails to connect to the audience. The exception is Ian Pirie, whose performance as Chae provides an oasis of intimate connectivity amongst a desert of sometimes Brechtian absurdity and objectivity.

Just as Pirie’s engaging performance stands in contrast to that of his peers, Michael McDonough’s beautiful cinematography stands opposite Davies’ often useless style. McDonough lights his interior shots like a Vermeer painting, the natural light falling off into black shadow. His exteriors have equal splendor and detail. Every one of his camera’s movements – or lack there of – has purpose and meaning.

The true reward comes with the film’s climax and resolution. Despite Davies’s stylistic mistakes and the film’s difficult stretches, the audience cannot help but sink into empathetic heartbreak as Ewyn falls from loving grace into the same brutality shown by Chris’s father. Similarly, we cannot help but rise up with Chris as she realizes that her true nature and identity lay in the land itself. Terence Davies’s long and at many times difficult tour ends with a bang and a song, both of which are worth waiting for. Grade: B-

By Ryan Rose

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