Sunset Song (UK-Luxembourg 2015)


This film is in the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. From the opening sequences the meticulous mise en scène and the overbearing father figure we are in the familiar territory of director Terence Davies. Farmer Guthrie presides over a family of wife, older daughter and son and younger children in the early C20th. They live and work in Aberdeenshire near the North East Coast of Scotland. If you like Davies’ work then you will, along with my friend Jake, be absorbed and impressed by the film. I found it rather long and not that involving. This is partly down to Davies’ style: the film appears to aim at naturalism, but the self-conscious style militates against this.

It is, as always with Davies, beautifully done. The cast are excellent and to my (untrained) ear the Scottish accents were correct. Note though, the film uses locations in New Zealand as well as Scotland: surprising when the film was partly funded by Creative Scotland. The farm is set on the edge of rolling hills and the landscapes, buildings and surrounds appear authentic. This is equally true of the costumes and props, and indeed the animals on the farm. But there is an absence of muck. There are muddy fields, but elsewhere it all seems rather pristine. The daughter Chris at one point states that

“I hate dirt.”

And this seems true of the film. Chris appears to be wearing make-up all through the film, in 1900s rural Scotland. There is mud aplenty in a wartime sequence; here we get a slow overhead tracking shot of mud and barbed wire, possibly a fly cam.

The film presents all this in a slow manner. There are frequent slow pans, tilts and dissolves. Whilst the pace of a early 20th rural community would be slow I rather felt that there would have been a quicker rhythm to life. The most dramatic sequences involve violence and sex with a raw realism.

The period is just before and during World War I. This was a period of transition in Scottish rural communities, a major theme apparently in the source novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons (1932) adapted by Davies.

“i.e. the coming of modernisation to traditional farming communities”.

However I felt that the film did not really dramatise these themes effectively. Obviously the film has made cuts to the novel, but not always to best effect. Just one example, the novel includes the following:

“The theme of the onset of modernisation and the end of old ways is explored using many symbols, for example, violent deaths of horses (supposed to represent old, traditional farming methods)”

I can ensure animals lovers that I did not spot any animal fatalities in the film.

Another theme in the novel, addressing the position of women, is there in the film. Indeed Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie is excellent, but the other women in the story are undeveloped, so it becomes a film about a heroine rather than a community. One of  the major scenes  of community in the film is a gathering to attend the Church Service and be harangued by the minister on the war effort. The critical tone of this is good but it also feels so conventional. Davies likes shots of golden cornfields. And the villagers gather through a cornfield whilst the Glasgow Orpheus Choir sing on the soundtrack: this was overly rich.

The novel has enjoyed a number of adaptations, both for the theatre and for television. I have not seen these but apparently they also made changes. It is not really fair to judge the film by its faithfulness to the novel. However, apart from the style, I found the film thematically unclear. In particular there is a strong strand of socialist thinking in Gibbons’ novels, but the film only had three lines of dialogue in which ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ appears, and no serious context for this: (rather like Suffragette 2015). The novel is part of a trilogy by Gibbons, so I suspect the absence of the later two from the treatment leads to the sense of irresolution at the close. I think if you like Davies’ films you will probably enjoy his treatment of this period story, it is a visual and aural feast. It is screening again on Thursday November 12th at the Hyde Park Picture house, but at 3.30 p.m. It is a long film 135 minutes. It was shot on film but the transfer to a DCP is very good.

Wikipedia has a page on the novelist and there is Paul Foot.

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