Few British directors are more deserving of the title ‘auteur’ than Terence Davies. Born in 1945 to working class Catholic parents, Davies began his directorial career in 1976 when his autobiographical short Children secured funding from the much-lamented BFI production board. After enrolling at the prestigious National Film School, Davies went on to complete a trilogy of short autobiographical films that screened at festivals all over the world and helped the British film scene retain some credibility at a time when an ascendant European art house tradition tended to look upon the British film industry as a shabby and underfunded adjunct to the great American Satan that is Hollywood.
Despite being one of the few unimpeachable visionaries of British film, Davies has enjoyed a career that is best described as patchy in that he infamously refuses to compromise his vision and so tends to drop out of fashion the second attentions shift away from poetically sparse films with themes relating to either Catholicism or homosexuality. Under-employed for much of the 1990s and 2000s, Davies is currently enjoying a purple patch after his intensely personal and moving collage documentary Of Time and The City wowed critics and producers at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. Having parlayed the unexpected success of such a personal film into the relative success of 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea, Davies was finally in a position to secure funding for one of his passion projects, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic series of novels A Scots Quair. However, while Davies may have been intensely passionate about his adaptation of the novels, ‘passion’ is not exactly the word that springs to mind when viewing such an anaemic, under-written, and miscast film.
Set in early 20th Century rural Scotland, Sunset Song opens with an intelligent young woman failing in her attempts to secure a bursary that would have allowed her to continue her schooling. Thoughtful but immediately resentful of the idea that she should prove herself by jumping through hoops, the young Chris (Agyness Deyne) commits herself to life on the farm just as she comes to realise that her father treats her mother as little more than breeding sow. As the screams of unwanted sex transition into the howls of messy childbirth, Chris realises that her father is nothing more than a monster.
Played by the usually excellent Peter Mullan as a quiet man who can erupt into violence at the drop of a hat, the Father realises that his family has grown too big for their small house and so decides to become a tenant farmer in an impoverished part of North East Scotland. Initially reluctant to hire skilled labourers, the Father uses his family as indentured slaves. This campaign of cruelty results not only in Chris’ mother being driven insane but also in the brutal horse-whipping of Chris’ brother Will (Jack Greenlees) who immediately decides to abandon his family and make a new life for himself in Argentina. Left alone with her Father, Chris learns never to hope, never to dream, and never to speak out of turn until the Father’s unexpected illness and death results in Chris inheriting not only the estate but also responsibility for the local economy. Finally free to think and do as she pleases, Chris throws herself into marriage with one of the farm hands only for this display of humanity to be punished by the outbreak of World War I.
In order to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of Sunset Song, it is first necessary to realise that the film is built around two very specific themes; Stillness and Humanity.
The stillness of Sunset Song is manifest in every beat of Michael McDonagh’s careful cinematography. Full of dark rooms where groups of people sit in oppressive silence, Sunset Song is both beautifully composed and intimately tied to the passage of seasons. Shot in what would appear to be natural light, the film shows us the changing of the seasons and how winter’s long nights and summer’s glorious days impact the moods of the characters. Given that the film is set in Northern Scotland where summers tend to be somewhat sub-Californian, much of the film is dark and claustrophobic in a way that echoes Chris’ fear and emotional restraint. In fact, one is almost tempted to say that Sunset Song is a film about the toxicity of emotional expression as anything less than iron-jawed stoicism is met with all the hurt and misery that the universe can provide.
The problem is that while emotional claustrophobia is both a strong and identifiable aesthetic, it is not a good fit for these particular actors. Setting aside the fact that Peter Mullan’s Father is supposed to be the embodiment of transgressive rage and unchecked psychotic desire, Mullan has obviously been cast on the basis of his performance as a psychotic patriarch in both Top of the Lake and Neds. However, Mullan is excellent in both of those films because they allow him to use his physicality to project the tortured inner world of his characters. Committed to stillness, Davies compels Mullan to either stand stock still or sit in chairs meaning that his ability to conjure menace and project dread is much reduced. This horrendous misuse of one of Scotland’s greatest living actors is only the first of two disastrous casting decisions.
While the visuals of Sunset Song are all about emotional control, the film does allow for some light and shade by considering the ways in which humanity will always bubble up and cause ripples in the surface of even the darkest and stillest lakes. On a purely technical level, the stillness of the film’s compositions means that our attention is forever drawn to the faces of the actors where we naturally seek some sign of interiority beneath the illusion of emotional control. The problem here is that while the stillness of the visuals and the narrative focus upon the character of Chris may draw out attention to the face of Agyness Deyne, Deyne is not an actor who goes in for trembling lips, arching eyebrows or anything that might suggest inner conflict or failing emotional control. In fairness, Deyne is excellent when the script allows her to be unambiguously happy or sad but she struggles to retain our attention the second the film returns us to those still and darkened rooms. Such is the inappropriateness of Deyne for this part that the film noticeably improves the second another actor wanders into shot. Indeed, while there’s very little substance to either Kevin Guthrie’s Ewan or Ian Prie’s Chae, the film is far more watchable for their presence.
The film’s casting problems are also a product of the way in which Davies has chosen to take a trilogy of novels and reduce them down to a single 135-minute film. The tri-partite nature of the source material may have provided Davies with a neat three act structure but the details of the narrative are either stripped out or reduced down to a series of simplistic character beats that feel far too broad for the kind of story that Davies is trying to tell. For example, while both the son’s departure for Argentina and the mother’s commitment to an insane asylum are supposed to be pivotal moments in Chris’ life, Davies does not allow us enough time to either grow attached to the departing characters or understand their importance to Chris. This not only robs the departing characters of all subtlety, it also weakens the remaining characters as we are never allowed to understand the network of relationships that bind these people together.
The shallowness of Davies’ adaptation is particularly evident when we enter the final act where Chris’ family comes under pressure from local villagers who are enraged by the group’s failure to support the war. The problem here is that, up until that point, Davies had barely acknowledged the existence of a world outside of Chris’ farm and so he is unable to communicate why a group of isolated farm workers would suddenly feel obliged to conform to the wishes of a community that appears to have had almost no impact on their lives. This lack of broader context also serves to completely undermine a climactic scene as Chris’ husband is supposed to have brought the savagery of war home with him from the recruitment centre but in truth he just comes across as inexplicably drunk and hostile.
Despite being poorly cast and quite poorly adapted, the film does get a number of things right as McDonagh’s claustrophobic cinematography means that the film explodes with beauty and joy whenever the characters do bother to step outside. Indeed, there’s a lovely moment when Chris and Ewan meet on a street filled with sheep that shows not only the beauty of the Scottish countryside but also what Deyne is capable of achieving when allowed to actually emote. Admittedly, these moments of emotional expansiveness shine because so much of the film is claustrophobic but they do hint at what the film might have been like had Davies found a better balance between light and shade.
Also excellent is the film’s depiction of World War I as an atrocity rather than a tragedy: Tragedy is millions of men fighting and dying in the name of freedom, but an atrocity is when millions of working class men are fed into an industrialised meat-grinder by a ruling class who viewed them as nothing short of disposable. This is one area where the farm’s remoteness from the outside world really seems to work as the war never seems like anything other than an injustice imposed by the powerful upon the powerless.
As frustrating as it is beautiful, Sunset Song leaves us wondering what might have been achieved had Davies decided to turn the novels into a miniseries rather than a film. At five or six hours, Sunset Song would have worked brilliantly but at just over two hours it feels cramped and reductive.