Director: Terence Davies
Cast: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Jack Greenless, Kevin Guthrie, Ian Pirie, Douglas Rankine, Daniela Nardini, Linda Duncan McLaughlin, Ron Donachie
MPAA Rating: (for sexuality, nudity and some violence)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 5/13/16 (limited); 5/27/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 26, 2016
It is, perhaps, to be expected that a story as steeped in melodrama as the one of Sunset Song will heap misery upon its characters. As always, the question of a movie's effectiveness is not based on what happens but on how the movie portrays that what. Writer/director Terence Davies' adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel does a fine job avoiding the superficial pitfalls of melodrama for a while, until the story itself takes over in a final act that wallows in the form's weepy, over-the-top, and unconvincing ways.
The key to the movie's earlier success is that Davies' screenplay seems entirely unconcerned with matters of plot. There's a considerably lengthy section of the movie—after an introductory series of tragedies and losses—during which Davies offers an entirely different mode from the story's bookended acts, which depend entirely on situations of inevitable death and gloom. For a long stretch of the movie, there is little to no story. Since this is a coming-of-age tale, there are, of course, momentous occasions—love and marriage and childbirth. Since this is set in a period of time (the early 1900s) of current and approaching struggles, there are external forces beyond the characters' control—poverty and political strife and war.
Even in the face of these circumstances, though, Davies takes the high, less-traveled road. The movie becomes far more concerned with the workings and traditions of the community of a Scottish village than with its hardships. It's more involved in the way the story's ahead-of-her-time protagonist is affected by the troubles of her life than in indulging in that pain. It's a movie that would rather recreate the atmosphere of a time and place than try to force an audience to reach for the handkerchiefs.
The heroine is Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who lives with her family of three siblings in a small farmhouse. Upon the news that her mother Jean (Daniela Nardini) is pregnant, Chris, her father John (Peter Mullan), and her three brothers move to Kinraddie, an estate near the northeast coast of the country, and occupy the farmhouse of Blawearie.
The story's first act focuses on John's oppressive influence over his family, especially the heartless way he treats his wife (Chris overhears him making a religious, fatalistic argument in order to have sex with Jean against her will) and the cruelty he shows to his eldest son Will (Jack Greenlees). Will rebels against his father and receives lashes from the man's belt as a result. When the leather end doesn't get the desired result, John switches to the buckle (It's a static shot so that we can see Will's face—defiant until the old man leaves the barn, at which point he allows a show of pain). There's a decided level of patience to this opening section, and it emphasizes the constraints of this environment.
Will plans to leave one day for the city. Chris can only dream, especially once the number of her family begins to dwindle and her responsibility to the homestead increases. Eventually, she begins a romance with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), another local farmer.
Once Chris is on her own, the movie transforms into something completely different. In his depiction of woman trying to adjust to freedom for the first time in her life, Davies is working on multiple levels while employing minimal but meticulous form.
Perhaps the most obvious of the elements is the use of narration. There's a distinct gap between the movie's precisely relaxed pace and the passionately confounded narration (Adding to that distance is the way Chris tells her own story in the third person, as if woman of the voice-over is a separate entity from the character on screen). The visuals and words are still complementary, though, because Chris is a woman uncertain of but determined to find her place in society.
With her independence comes weightier concerns. This is a woman who becomes obsessed with the transience of time and life—her own, as well the lives of those who came before and will come after her. Davies, cinematographer Michael McDonough (offering gorgeous panoramas of the countryside as a stark contrast to the confines of the home), and editor David Charap portray that ephemeral quality, too. With a full turn of the camera, time passes. Sunlight breaks through the windows and fills a room with unnatural speed. Seasons come and pass without warning.
The central question of the story is if Chris has or will have the condition of being "vexed with life," from which her mother suffered. Before the answer arrives, the movie simply embraces the ways of this community. People gather around the dinner table to sing songs, march together in formation to Sunday services, and come together to celebrate a new union and commemorate "old long since." These scenes mean little to the story, but they go a long way in the understanding of the bonds of a small, isolated community.
Where Sunset Song ultimately goes, unfortunately, is a return to the story's earlier mode of circumstances over setting and characters. The laidback quality of the movie's middle section suddenly becomes a hindrance, as the situations and characters rush to and past the inevitable turns of the plot. As a result, they and the movie's final act feels hurried and uncharacteristically false.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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