A sure-fire contender for top ten films of 2015 lists.
There are lots of sunsets. There are lots of songs. There is a huge amount of turmoil, heartbreak and devastation. There are also bitterly-short periods of joy, bookended by tragedy. This film is exquisite and truly haunting. An adaptation of of a 1932 Scottish novel of the same name, this is director Terence Davies project of passion after years passed struggling to get funding, struggling to get his film made. The passion truly shines through.
Aberdeenshire farm girl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) is the daughter of a housewife and a tyrannical father (Peter Mullan), and younger sister to a brother who is constantly beaten by their father. Her mother’s life is comprised of being raped and giving birth – she does not want the same for her daughter. Chris also does not want to be fated to live a life like her mother’s. Luckily Chris is exceptionally bright, the smartest girl at her school, and is one track to move away and train to be a teacher. When her mother falls pregnant, again, and gives birth to twins, again, the family move away to a bigger house. Once they arrive in their new home, a series of events occur which cause the family to crumble and fall away. Chris must endure so aching hardship but appears to find happiness with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). This period of her life is shattered when war (World War One) is declared. Life for Chris and her fellow residents of Kinraddie will never be the same.
Considering the series of devastating events that is the life of Chris Guthrie Sunset Song never crosses the boundary into melodrama. Admirably, to great success, the film and its storytelling retain a muted stoicism. It’s bitterly sad and this effect is sharpened by its refraining to rely on exaggerated displays. Deyn in particular is extraordinary. Her Chris has a captivating innocence, an innate need to endure and stand firm when all around her are losing their heads (metaphorically speaking!) Tears roll and glide down her face, even at her most bereft she has no need for frantic or guttural moaning at the continuous losses she suffers. The film opens on a sweeping pan of the farm-land, from which Chris emerges. She is a child of the land, the love she feels for it is her only constant. Peter Mullan is excellent as her father who himself is torn between his apparent religious compass and his vices. His conflicted nature never used as an excuse for his behaviour but a reason as to why.
The cinematography is breathtakingly exquisite, treated with an almost religious adulation. The camera tracks and pans across the land almost as if it is character not setting. In many ways it is a character, playing a part in events and meaning so much to so many. The editing is crucial is creating this tone of melodic heartbreak. Those previously aware of Davies work will notice his fades, cross-dissolves and panning to mark the passing of time. Those who were not will marvel at how they are used for sublime effect. The brief intermittent use of song furthers the sense of haunting and trauma. Never is a full song uttered, merely snippets which the film and its characters cling onto, just as they are clinging on desperately to this way of life. For the sunset being referred to is the sunset of this particular time, this particular way of life, which is fated to end. For the war did not just kill people, but communities. The brutalising effect of war has repercussions both seen and concealed. It also does not discriminate in its path of destruction
A beautifully crafted film comprise of visual grace and emotional density. Truly remarkable.