Based on the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, “Sunset Song” is a story of a young Scottish heroine’s search for happiness and independence. Set in the years leading up to the World War I, Terence Davies brings this sombre adaptation of the classic book to grim, gritty life.
Aberdeenshire lass Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) lives in grinding poverty on a farm on the on Scotland’s north-east coast. She feels an obligation to the land and her siblings but dreams of moving away from her tyrannical father (Peter Mullan) to become a teacher in the city. Her father’s cruelty takes a toll on all around her, particularly her brother Will (Jack Greenlees) who is subjected to brutal belt-buckle beatings to keep his rebellious spirit in line. A marriage to the sweet-natured Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) turns sour when he briefly returns from war, hardened by Western Front trench warfare.
Suicide, rape and misery are the order of the day in “Sunset Song.” “Sunset Song” is almost relentlessly grim, save for a fleeting moment of happiness in the middle. It’s the kind of movie that builds drama by wallowing in the wretchedness and dysfunction of its characters.
There are some memorable moments, many courtesy of cinematographer Michael McDonough who grounds the story with beautifully composed shots of the serene countryside that surrounds Chris and her family. Davies directs the camera in some truly spectacular ways but cannot get around the fact that the movie’s first and second act sturm and drang peter out in the third, leaving the film feeling lopsided.
Former model Deyn occasionally battles with the Scottish accent but otherwise hands in an effective performance that cold be her breakthrough. As the patriarchal oppressor Mullan revisits familiar territory—it’s a riff on his characters from “NEDS” and “Top of the Lake”—but is a fierce presence nonetheless. Greenlees’s big scene involves a minutes-long shot that focuses on his face as his father viciously beats him. Guthrie has good chemistry with Deyn until his personality changes and he returns from war, hardened and heartless.
“Sunset Song” is a beautifully made but severe movie about an indomitable spirit clashing with harsh reality. On the downside it features an occasionally difficult-to-understand Scottish dialect and sometime errs on the dull side, but, on the upside, it just as often creates moments of pure lyrical beauty.