Some movies demand a certain setting, and while the darkness of a theater has the always-welcome atmosphere of silent unity, Terence Davies‘ “Sunset Song” would seem to suggest that a seat near a crackling fireplace, complete with a warm blanket and a hot cup of tea, would be the perfect place to see it.
Many consider Davies as Britain’s greatest living director, and those familiar with his absorbing works —”The Long Day Closes,” “The House of Mirth,” “The Deep Blue Sea,” et al— look forward to his graceful sensibilities. They will be thoroughly nourished with his latest picture. His latest adaptation, of a 1932 work often regarded as the most important Scottish novel of the 20th century, astutely evokes a sense of patriotic pride and bottomless respect for nature and its organic cycles, and introduces the world to the considerable acting talents of Agyness Deyn (previously best known as a model).
Set in the picturesque countryside of Kinraddie in the early 1900s, the story follows the bookish Chris Guthrie (Deyn), daughter to a God-fearing farmer (Peter Mullan) and sister to free-spirited Will (Jack Greenless), but most closely related to the beauteous prairies of Scotland. It’s a coming-of-age tale that instantly stands out by sheer virtue of being about a female during a time when women were treated as little more than property for the men to do with as they please. This unfortunate state of affairs is personified in Chris’ mother, a woman who is practically forced into pregnancy after pregnancy by her husband. In one early, wrenching scene, Chris and Will sit in their room, listening to their mother’s lamentation at the hands of their father and bond over their common hatred of him.
The cycle of time spins ever forward with invisible nimbleness, and Chris’ frame of mind is formed through both good and bad experiences with her family and neighboring farmers like Chae Strachan (Ian Pirie). When her mother, unable to tolerate another pregnancy, decides to take her own life, Chris leaves her books behind and vows to dedicate her life to the land her mother loved so much. Soon after, more tragedy befalls the Guthrie household, while Chris meets and falls in love with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), one of Will’s friends. Thus, “Sunset Song” portrays a woman’s life during the harshest of times, invoking a magisterial ode dedicated to a country’s spirit.
Davies’ direction effortlessly transforms his camera into an artist’s paintbrush, a poet’s pen, and a singer’s voice. What indescribable joy it is for any lover of the moving image to see a film that so fruitfully captures the essence of the artform as an amalgam of all others. Michael McDonough‘s photography places us atop highlands and next to lakes, always looking to the all-encompassing sky for consolation. More than once, beautifully sung ballads decorate the picture in ways that will give your goosebumps the goosebumps. And the script, adapted by Davies, shines through Chris’ narration and would make William Wordsworth proud. “Sunset Song” finds the exquisite craftsmanship of this venerable British master brought to lilting and rhythmic life, softly cradling the viewer with ethereal storytelling.
With his monumental control of the camera —at times staying with characters during quiet moments of anticipation, at others panning slowly 360 degrees to envelop us in the entirety of the environment— Davies directs the most refined coming-of-age story cinema has seen in recent years. There is a tracking shot before the final fade out that will most likely remain one of the greatest sequences of the year. With this kind of directorial experience, Davies provides a platform for his performers to soak into their roles in quiet and profound ways. Mullan continues to defy expectations by adding unpredictable sympathy his portrayal of a vile human being, Guthrie and Pirie’s performances transcend (particularly in one supercharged scene at the end), but it’s Deyn who is rightly the film’s glowing revelation and will undoubtedly go onto bigger things.
As novelistic and painterly as this film is, “Sunset Song” will undoubtedly test the patience of viewers who’d rather their films be fast than fastidious. It’s true that the story meanders on occasion, and there’s at least a couple of scenes that overstay their welcome, but these minor quibbles hardly negate the overall effect. Choosing its metaphors with great care, wistfully contemplating the nature of man’s worth to his country, and elegantly juxtaposing the spirit of a singular woman with her country, “Sunset Song” is a remarkable experience. Whether you’re at home by a warming fire, or in the quiet darkness of a theatre, you’d be doing yourself a tremendous favor by letting this film take you on its holistic and heartfelt journey. [A-]