Sunset Song review – a lyrical triumph

Terence Davies’s lyrical version of the Scottish classic finds the veteran director at the height of his powers

Back in the dark days when the UK Film Council was merrily throwing money at the shameful Sex Lives of the Potato Men, British film-making legend Terence Davies was finding it impossible to fund a screen adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, Sunset Song, a hardscrabble tale of a young woman finding her identity – personal, national, spiritual – in rural northeast Scotland beneath the gathering clouds of the Great War. Despite the critical success of The House of Mirth, his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel, Davies feared he might never trouble our cinema screens again. It wasn’t until his superb, low-budget love letter to Liverpool, Of Time and the City, became the unexpected toast of Cannes in 2008 that the skies started to brighten for our pre-eminent auteur. Now, with a well-received 2011 adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea under his belt and the Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, already in the can, Davies’s long-delayed passion project finally reaches our screens. It has been worth the wait.

It’s not hard to see why Davies would be drawn to Sunset Song, which he first encountered through the BBC’s 1971 TV serialisation, and succinctly summarised as being about “the power and cruelty of both family and nature”. So many elements from Grassic Gibbon’s novel – the first instalment in the beloved A Scots Quair trilogy – resonate with the autobiographical themes explored in Davies’s own (trans)formative trilogy of early shorts, and subsequently in Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. There is the abusive father, brilliantly played by Peter Mullan, who breathes both fury and pathos into the role of John Guthrie, a turn-of-the-century farming patriarch torn between the anger of devotion (he sings hymns while harvesting) and the demons of violence and lust (he beats his son and beds his wife “like a breeding sow”, the screams of sex and childbirth intermingled). There is the yearning female voice, Agyness Deyn providing internal monologue narration for Chris, who is torn between the beauty of the ancient Scottish land on which she toils, and the “sharp, clean and true” English words of an education that may yet take her away from all this. And there is unforgiving religion, from father’s belt to the damnation poured from the pulpit upon those (including Chris’s true love, Ewan) who have no enthusiasm for war, branded as “pro-German cowards” in league with an antichrist kaiser.

Sunset Song - video review

Most importantly, there is song, ringing out through the natural rustle of wind and bird and harvest, threatening to transform this drama into a musical, that purest of cinematic fantasias (no surprise that Davies cites Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as inspirational). When the Guthrie family move house to accommodate their ever expanding brood, they do so to the strains of Wayfaring Stranger hauntingly sung by Jennifer John. On her wedding night, Chris performs a keening rendition of Flowers of the Forest, the music of which is woven into the very fabric of Grassic Gibbon’s text. Later, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) sings a few line of Robert Burns’s The Lass That Made the Bed to Me, another song taken directly from the rhapsodic sacred source. Throughout, Davies’s aim remains true. He is perhaps the only film-maker in the world who could stage a tipsy rendition of Ladies of Spain without the slightest hint of a Spielberg reference (it wouldn’t surprise me if he’d never seen Jaws).

What sings clearest, however, is Michael McDonough’s ravishing cinematography, a blend of 65mm celluloid stock and resiliently responsive digital that takes us from the darkened, coffee-coloured confines of candlelit interiors through glowing fields of gold and green and up into cloudy skies of blue, grey and white. There’s a touch of Terrence Malick as McDonough’s camera glides through verdant pastoral idylls (weather and funding variously led the production to Scotland, New Zealand and Luxembourg). Elsewhere we see hints of Vermeer as families huddle in semi-lit rooms, painterly compositions defined by an artist’s attention to detail. There are slow tracks and long pull-backs too – a Davies trademark – but McDonough brings his own sense of circling exploration, moving us forward even as the narrative folds back upon itself and once-loving men become brutalised beasts, crawling from the shadows, across floors and through mud, foreign and domestic.

Through it all, the land, like this exceptional director, endures. Davies is still sprightly as he turns 70, and I suspect his best work may be yet to come. Now that is something worth singing about.

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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