TIFF Review: 'Sunset Song'

Sunset Song
(UK/Luxembourg, 135 min.)
Written and directed by Terence Davies
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Jack Greenlees
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)
Photo courtesy of TIFF

“You almost wish that you could have all that bad stuff back
So that you could have the good”
-Rhianna, “Hopeless Place”

Agyness Deyn gives a revelatory performance as Chris Guthrie, the resilient, long-suffering daughter of a Scottish farming family in Terence Davies’ latest period piece, Sunset Song. Deyn, who has a few small roles to her name in Pusher and Clash of the Titans, might have the widest audience for her work narrating the music video for Rhianna’s pop/dance sensation “Hopeless Place.” Ironically, the song’s chorus of “We found love in a hopeless place” could easily be the mantra/tagline for Sunset Song, for Chris finds love in the forlorn landscape of Kinraddie, a fictional Scottish town where her family owns Blawearie farm. Deyn gives a subtly wrenching performance as Chris undergoes a series of ups and downs that mirror the harsh reality of growing up as a bright young woman in turn of the century rural Scotland. Deyn’s Chris is surely to be among the breakout performances of the year.

Sunset Song doesn’t play with anachronisms, so Rhianna doesn’t pepper the soundtrack, but a haunting rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” sets the mood for a wistful portrait of a hard life seen through Chris’s eyes. Deyn’s excellent turn is a highlight of Davies’ overall exquisite Sunset Song. This adaptation of the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon boasts all of Davies’ strengths in their finest forms. The film is an enthralling slice of poetic realism as Davies brings his signature cinematic equivalent to literary modernism to the screen for a look at the Scotland of yore with neither rose coloured glasses nor retrospective specs. The tone and delivery is ornately matter of fact, yet everything seems perfectly in tune with contemporary sensibilities thanks to the no-nonsense delivery of Davies and Deyn. Sunset Song is a must-see period fans and page-to-screen junkies alike.

Sunset Song shines a light on the hardship of the working class as the trolling camera (cinematographer Michael McDonough lenses the film beautifully) cranes through the heavenly golden fields and into the dark Guthrie home where Chris lives with her brother Will (Jack Greenlees), their two younger brothers, their mother Jean and their father John. Peter Mullan plays the latter at his tyrannical best and the film quickly makes it clear why Chris loves to escape to the fields and lie with her head in the clouds.

If John has an ounce of kindness to his nature, Sunset Song withholds it. John is a pious, angry patriarch who knows only bitterness and meanness. Mullan plays him remarkably and with volatility as the father lashes out at his kids with his tongue and belt. Doubly effective is John’s cold treatment of Jean, who wearily bears a set of twins in her belly to add to the four kids they can barely afford. Davies, in perhaps one of the most horrifying sound mixes of all time, thunderously scores John’s oppressive coldness by showing the audience Chris’s face as she listens to her mother plead with John not to touch her. Then she wails in pain as he penetrates her—by no means could one mistake them for “making love”—before the soundtrack seamlessly fades to Jean’s doubly agonized screams as she delivers two more babies. Motherhood is the death of her when home is such an unforgiving place.

Sequences of tragedy strike the Guthrie household and soon leave Chris in charge with tending the fields and managing the farm. Literary types will especially swoon for Sunset Song’s likeness to this year’s equally sumptuous and cinematic adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd, but Davies’ take is spectacularly depressing art in its own right. Deyn also performs a pivotal love ballad, much like Carey Mulligan croons “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” in Madding, but the weight and significance of the song assumes a different emotional complexity. Side by side, Sunset Song and Far from the Madding Crowd illustrate how two auteurs can re-read similar texts to produce complementary, yet wildly unique, adaptations.

Chris is no Bathsheba Everdene, however, with throngs of men to court while tending to the sheep. She’s shy and more introspective—and effectively sparse fragments of voiceover feature Chris narrating her story in third person, describing the feelings of a girl named Chris to whomever wants to listen—but she’s equally headstrong with a passionate lust for life. Brightly played by Deyn, Chris sparkles with life but wears the weather of her experience growing up in the shadow of an oppressive father and a mother taken for granted.

John’s meanness guides Chris to find a strong match in her farmhand Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), who treats her like an equal (mostly) and, unlike John, sees his bride as something other than a uterus. Sunset Song finds hope and optimism within the gorgeous Scottish countryside as love blossoms at Blawearie. Guthrie makes a strong and impressionable match for Deyn, and an even better emotional and tonal counterpart for Mullan, and the film offers a brief respite in Chris’s life when Ewan enters the scene.

All good things fade, though, and war rocks Europe. Ewan resists the call to fight, but he eventually succumbs to rumours of conscription and charges of cowardice. He returns from battle an emotionally scarred man: mean, agitated, and disdainful of Chris. He’s John reborn.

Davies’ meticulous direction handles the mercurial change in Ewan’s temperament with bittersweet compassion. War changes a man, Chris realizes, but the loss of the husband she loves carries such tangible overlap with her own father’s meanness that she better understands the man she buried. Sunset Song is a poem of the human condition, an uncontrived look at the way people are slaves to social situations. Bent, flexed, and shaped into new men or women, the family at Blawearie realistically symbolizes a family at this specific moment in time that anticipates change for future generations. Davies’ attitude is not so much an elegy as it is a matter-of-fact snapshot to a nation’s heritage and past.

Davies’ realization of the period is, of course, flawless as each frame of Sunset Song looks like a sumptuous painting and an archival snapshot alike. Production values emphasize the slice-of-life character of the Guthrie household while the gorgeous cinematography trickles sunlight into whichever cracks it finds in the dank interiors of Blawearie. Sunset Song finds eventually finds sweet relief as Chris grows through the hardship she faces and her quiet cottage fills with heartwarming light. The film wholly belongs to Deyn, though, with her unwaveringly compelling performance as Chris: attune to poise and manner of the time, but glowing with effusive and indefatigable spirit, she’s a guiding light in Blawearie’s poetically sombre palette.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Sunset Song screens:
-Sunday, Sept. 13 at the Winter Garden Theatre at 9:00 PM
-Monday, Sept. 14 at TIFF Lightbox 3 at 9:15 PM
-Sunday, Sept. 20 at Isabel Bader at 12:15 PM

Please visit www.tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.
More coverage on this year’s festival can be found here.

Update: Sunset Song opens in Toronto at the Varsity on May 13 from Unobstructed View Inc. and expands across Canada in the following weeks, including Ottawa at The ByTowne on June 17.