September 14, 2016

The Scottish epic 'Sunset Song' experiences emotions on a grand scale, and it's one of the strongest films of the year.

Sunset Song begins and ends with its gaze fixed on land. The movie might have been lifted from the pages of a George Eliot novel in all its poignant, hard, poetic realism, and its closeness with nature. It’s based on the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and it has been a pet project for writer-director Terence Davies, who’s been trying to make an adaptation of Gibbon’s novel for some time. Sunset Song is set in Scotland, but thankfully it doesn’t fetishize Scottish culture the way movies like Braveheart, which is essentially Scottish nostalgia fan fiction, have in the past. Sunset Song isn’t about the reverie of victory, or the ways that war constitutes and augments the male identity. Instead, it’s a meditation on the cold indifference of life, and the fact that we creatures comprise but an instant in the grand sweep of time. And unlike the films of Terence Malick, Sunset Song conveys this idea while always keeping its finger on the pulse of human beings, on the private tragedies and revelations and joys that make and mark our days.

In a sense, Sunset Song liberates Scotland from all the macho mythologies we Westerners have projected onto it, whether that means identifying in some primal way with Braveheart or flying a Scottish flag in our houses because we have an indeterminate measure of Scottish blood in our veins. It's a thing here in the South, at any rate. (Full disclosure: I have two Scottish flags in my classroom, because I do hail from Scottish roots, or at least I think I do, so I’ll acknowledge my hypocrisy now.)

The film opens on a brown husk of farmland, all crackling and peaceful, where a teenage girl named Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) emerges from where she’s been lying in the peaceful field, enrapt by the outside world like Alice before drifting off to Wonderland. The wind is as loud as the ocean, and Chris feels most at home in the embrace of the winds and the fields and the sun; Chris presides over the land at the end too, while a piper plays the bagpipes, the one moment in which Davies indulges us. If he were trying to milk the tears out of us, those bagpipes would have been the entire score of this 135-minute film. Instead, Davies restrains himself, and offers up an unassuming, focused epic about Chris as she matures into a woman.

We expect sprawling family sagas to manipulate us, to shrewdly and skillfully juice the tears out of us as though we were dried-up orange peels, so it’s almost a shock to the system that Terence Davies shows as much restraint as he does. Plenty of tragic things happen to Chris, and the film is never unsympathetic, but it also doesn't marinate in the tragedy. Chris’s world is a broken cup: she has an abusive, fanatically religious father (played to perfection by Peter Mullan) who pumps his wife full of children despite the fact that she’s clearly depressed and exhausted; Mr. Guthrie uses his religion to goad his wife into compliance. And because of his volatile personality, everyone in the house walks around in bleak fear of upsetting him.

When Will, Chris’s dear older brother (played by the stoically captivating Jack Greenlees) mockingly calls him “Jehovah,” Mr. Guthrie horsewhips Will in the barn. Later, we see Will, a tower of toughness, melting into the arms of his sister in nearly inaudible tears. Chris, like a monolith, silently takes everything in, speaking up only once against her father’s ill temper, and waits for time to pass, for things to change, for the authority to act as she pleases, to put an end to this kind of mistreatment.

In a particularly Thomas Hardy-esque moment, Chris’s mother poisons herself and her twin infants, leaving Mr. Guthrie and the four older children, two of whom (younger boys with barely any screen time) are pawned off on Chris’s aunt and uncle. That leaves the cranky, misanthropic father and Chris, because soon Will has had enough and finds work in a neighboring city. Mr. Guthrie is the kind of wretched old man who is likely to die slowly, all the better to torment Chris, his caregiver. But finally he does die, leaving Chris the land. Chris is her own woman, free to make her own decisions.

The biggest decision comes in the form of Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), the charming young man Chris marries. But their love is so tender and joyful that you know it’s doomed. World War I is beckoning, after all. The film bristles with outrage about the war, and all the countless lives wasted by the designs of greedy, self-serving politicians. In particular, the war changes Ewan. Shell shock, or some internal demon, makes a monster out of him: He becomes Guthrie Part II, and Chris must relive her painful childhood all over again; only now she’s less willing to make do with the abuses of a man. And she has capital, in the form of land. 

When Scarlett O’Hara’s father opined about the land in Gone with the Wind (“It’s the only thing that counts, Katie Scarlet,” he pontificates with his Irish brogue), we knew that Scarlet was going to lose everything but Tara. It’s the kind of obvious foreshadowing that haunts sprawling family epics. But in Sunset Song, this knowledge is a foregone conclusion: The film assumes that life is inherently tragic, or at least, indifferent. We are tossed cruelly about by circumstance and the economies of the world. 

Agyness Deyn, as Chris, has the austere-rural-woman look down pat. Deyn has an earthy quality about her, which suits the rural life her character has been born into. She works the fields right alongside her brother; she cooks and cleans; she goes into a fierce storm to rescue the terrified horses, in the middle of the night. Chris, though always measured and careful, can fight back: When Ewan comes at her like a maniac (after a furlough from the War), she brandishes a kitchen knife at him: "I'm not afraid of you!" she declares, almost as much to herself as to him. (This is after he rapes her, though, in a scene in which Chris is too terrified and taken aback to put up a fight.) Deyn's sincerity, which so often seems passive, springs to vibrant, violent life in unexpected moments. And Ewan's tragic change is magnified by actor Kevin Guthrie's sheer likability. When Ewan first spies Chris, he gazes at her with those big puppy dog eyes and we're in love with his love for her; when Chris is in the throes of an excruciating labor, we see him tormented by his inability to be of help. It's easy to see why Chris would fall for him; and it's all the more heartbreaking that Ewan undergoes such a terrible transformation.

Will viewers buy this film's sincere, austere story? It's hard to say. We've, been trained to trust only the shallow emotions we feel in movies, the obvious plot points and developments, the happy resolutions, the sitcom endings. Sunset Song is a film that feels wholly and unashamedly on a grand scale. But that might be a hard sell for some.  

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