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 brutal and freeing 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 spring gale breezes over, a sprightly grin on her face. Davies captures the hopefulness of springtide in a single unbroken shot. The harmony Davies finds between nature and humanity is key to understanding his train of thought. In Sunset Song, life and death come as naturally as the passing seasons, but it’s the little moments in between, ones of deep insight, that gives the setting’s rural modesty an extraordinary quality.
The young woman’s homestead is a rustic and peaceful overlay, but the family unit is fraught with hidden contempt and oppressed hatred. Their 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 vicious floggings and harsh beatings to which their kindhearted mother, Jean, is both forcefully complicit and victim to. We see Chris’ innocence end, not in one fell swoop, but in downtempo tragedies that require her to pick up the pieces her father has shattered.
Sunset Song provides an interesting foil to the despotic father, who left an embittered impression over all the males in the story, with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), Chris’ sympathetic suitor. Before Ewan, the most important men in her life were monsters and victims. The young man’s company in the film alone offers her the type of emotional and personal freedom no one else could offer her. The romance may be another stage that furthers her away from childhood, but it begins to warmly embrace a blossoming womanhood.
Despite history being built on misogynistic patriarchal systems, we mustn’t forget that modern society was too the result of great sacrifices of men—specifically the ones being forced into large scale conflicts (the First World War plays a big part in the film). 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 the modern day. Through the eyes of history, a deserter was a coward who faced a coward’s death, standing before a firing squad. Davies gives the coward a pretext of repentance. History is written by the winners, but to Davies the loser is more poetic.
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 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.” In that sense Sunset Song is just that, a song of resplendent images and visual lyricism, with understated filmmaker Terence Davies, behind the camera, as its master composer.