Sunset Song review: Agyness Deyn shines in Terence Davies' lolling romantic drama

Sun, sex and sumptuousness rule in Terence Davies’s adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel about a farming family torn apart by tragedy on the eve of the first world war

A warning pops up before the Toronto press screening of Terence Davies’ new film: “The following has not been enhanced by IMAX and is not the IMAX experience”.

It got a laugh from the crowd, but actually Davies, perhaps British cinema’s pre-eminent nostalgist, has made a film that’s perfectly suited to the too-big screen. His adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel is packed with emotional bombast, almost relentless in its lushness. The huge performances and bloated run time are a snug fit for the format.

Set in the coastal county of The Mearns (now Aberdeenshire) in north-east Scotland on the eve of the first world war, Sunset Song stars Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, the teenage daughter in a farming family living under the repression of their violent dad (Peter Mullan). Chris, a dreamer and a book worm, finds a strange liberty in the dissolution of her family as a tragedy wrought from her dad’s violent temper pulls them apart.

Patriarchal regime and the broken clockwork of dysfunctional family life are hallmarks of Davies films dating right back to his debut, Distant Voices, Still Lives. To Sunset Song he also brings some of the impressionist wanderings that characterised his last film, 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea. Here, with Michael McDonough’s lavish cinematography he spends an age tracking sun beams across dusty rooms, panning dreamily through the lace curtains and out across the corn fields.

It’s all fairly indulgent. But Sunset Song also has a viciousness that stops it falling too deep into a slumber. Gibbon’s book, published in 1932, put readers in a spin with its depictions of childbirth and sex. Davies uses both boldly, staging a cluster of scenes that are as unsettling and grim as anything by Lars von Trier. Chris’s dad grabs her mum for what Gibbon called “their bit pleasure together”, his grunts cross dissolve into the sound of a horrifically difficult labour nine months later. Davies then cuts to the shaking hand of the doctor, eating a boiled egg. It’s spooky and dirty, quite brilliantly done. In a later scene the father suffers a stroke, coiling onto the floor and clawing at the mud. Mullan’s body strains into an arch that echoes the shape he made when he leant over to kiss his abused wife on her death bed. Love and death and punishment, all in a bundle at once.

Deyn, in the best role of her burgeoning career, has the right mix of tenderness and tenacity to make Chris feel real in a world that often doesn’t. She throws herself into the sing-songs (of course there are sing-songs), the blow ups, the pastoral meandering. The emotional highs of the last act are a bit of a reach, but she makes it, just.

Davies recently said that he doesn’t understand the modern world, preferring a romantic version “that doesn’t quite exist anymore”. With Sunset Song he’s again made a prize of beauty and found peace in the past. The director may not like the present, but I think he’d enjoy watching his film on an IMAX screen. Those corn fields feel like they roll on forever.

  • This article was amended on Sunday 13 September 2015. The Mearns was in the area now known as Aberdeenshire, not Kincardineshire as we said. We also corrected the spelling of The Mearns, and the surnames of star Agyness Deyn and author Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Contributor

Henry Barnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sunset Song review – Agyness Deyn roams a stunning Scottish landscape
In this sombre and deeply satisfying tale of a rural community before the first world war, Terence Davies revisits the dark themes that have animated his career

Peter Bradshaw

03, Dec, 2015 @3:30 PM

Article image
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

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

06, Dec, 2015 @9:00 AM

Article image
Benediction review – Terence Davies’ piercingly sad Siegfried Sassoon drama
The tragic life of the poet and soldier is revisited with melancholy and theatricality in a bleak, and often hard to watch, biopic

Peter Bradshaw

12, Sep, 2021 @8:30 PM

Article image
A Doric cheer for Terence Davies’ Sunset Song film | Letters
Letters: Davies has consistently and generously credited Vivien Heilbron’s portrayal of Chris Guthrie as his inspiration for his 15-year labour of love

Letters

02, Dec, 2015 @8:09 PM

Article image
Sunset Song; Grandma; The Forbidden Room; Kill Your Friends; Show Me a Hero; Of Good Report – review
Terence Davies wilts in the great outdoors in Sunset Song while Lily Tomlin gives great grouch in Paul Weitz’s Grandma

Guy Lodge

03, Apr, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
British directors could still make a splash at Cannes, says festival director
Thierry Frémaux hints that Ben Wheatley’s High Rise and Terence Davies’ Sunset Song are still in the mix for the festival, which still has places to fill for the official selection

Andrew Pulver

17, Apr, 2015 @10:16 AM

Article image
Toronto international film festival: the early lineup's big surprises
There’s a packed slate of films including Ridley Scott’s The Martian and gay rights drama Stonewall, but many heavy-hitters may have chosen to show elsewhere

Nigel M Smith

28, Jul, 2015 @5:48 PM

Article image
Electricity review – Agyness Deyn has heart and soul
Agyness Deyn delivers a strong performance as a young woman with epilepsy on a quest to find her brother, writes Mark Kermode

Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

14, Dec, 2014 @8:00 AM

Article image
Toronto film festival 2015 to premiere Oscar hopefuls Freeheld and Stonewall
Festival reveals premieres of new films from Kate Winslet, Matt Damon, Bryan Cranston – and Michael Moore

Benjamin Lee

28, Jul, 2015 @3:57 PM

Article image
Couple in a Hole review - Scots go feral in France in poignant wilderness drama
A middle class couple move to a cave in a patiently paced lo-fi study of sadness

Benjamin Lee

17, Sep, 2015 @9:34 PM