The title Sunset Song is ironic, considering that the film’s heroine is only just entering adulthood, wouldn’t sunrise be a more suitable prefix? The relationship between the natural world and the human one define Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, a film of natural beauty so expressive and visual language so scrupulous that if ever a film could be described as literary, Sunset Song would certainly fit the bill. This sweeping epic of a woman’s challenging and liberating journey through a patriarchal society feels reminiscent of a Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy novel, but Davies makes it something more uniquely cinematic. And to answer my previous question, no. Sunset Song is a perfect title, although it celebrates a woman’s coming-of-age, it too sings for the memories we forget and the innocence we leave behind on our paths toward adulthood. Sunset Song is a grieving Scottish ballad of childhood’s end.
Director Terence Davies introduces us to a young woman, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), sprouting from the barley fields as a soft breeze passes, a grin on her face. Davies captures the hopefulness of springtide in an gorgeously composed shot of youthful bliss. The harmony Davies finds between nature and humanity is what documents his heart and soul in this one. In Sunset Song, life and death come as naturally as the passing seasons, but it’s the little moments in between, ones of unexpected insight, that gives the setting’s rural modesty a quality of the extraordinary.
The young woman’s homestead is a rustic and peaceful overlay, but the family unit is fraught with painstaking complicity. The patriarch, Chris’ father, John is a malevolent fundamentalist. Peter Mullen, who has a penchant for playing broken men, seems particularly at the top of his game as the gruff patriarch, a man stiffened by one too many days working the fields, like an overworked mule needing put out of its misery. The man’s son, Chris’ brother, Will is subject to the man’s floggings and beatings to which their kindhearted mother, Jean, is both forcefully complicit and victim to. We see Chris’s innocence end, not in one fell swoop, but in down tempo tragedies that require her to pick up the pieces her father has shattered.
Sunset Song provides a thoughtful and sensitive foil to the despotic father, a hobgoblin who left an embittered impression over all the men in the story, with the character of Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), Chris’s handsome suitor. Before Ewan, all the most important men in Chris’s life were a mixed bag of monsters and victims, those sexually propelled by the young woman’s youthful virility and pacified by her motherly sensitivity. Ewan’s love and passion provides Chris with a type of emotional and personal autonomy completely unbeknownst to her. For the first time in her life Chris sees what a man can offer her, instead of the reverse. The romance between the two may spell another stage furthering Chris from the raptures of youth, but we see her to warmly embrace her womanhood, setting aside childish bliss in favor of womanly wisdom.
Despite modern history’s foundations being built on misogynistic religious fundamentalism, orchestrated by men of the cloth and monarchs, we mustn’t forget that modern society was also the result of great sacrifices of men—specifically the ones forced into large scale conflicts (the First World War plays a big part here). Sunset Song doesn’t let us forget that history’s injustices knows no bias in gender. Davies, while painstakingly recreating an agonizing history of hypocrisy, still very much envisions his film through the sensitively introspective eyes of a modernist. Through history’s relatively narrow looking glass, a deserter was a coward who faced a coward’s death, standing before a firing squad. Davies gives the coward a pretext of repentance, allowing his death to prove exultant beyond superficial notions of masculinity.
The achingly beautiful rural landscapes and haunting visions of a time long past compliment one another in Davies’ Sunset Song, a tribute to the farmers and field workers who envisioned the entire world through the simplicity of their rural homestead. Abel Gance, a pioneer of silent film said “Cinema endows man with a new sense. It is the music of light. He listens with his eyes.” Sunset Song is just that, a sonnet of resplendent images, with its bard & songsmith, Terence Davies, behind the camera, as its master composer.