The Films of 2016: Sunset Song

It’s hard to know how to react to a film like Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, which is so devoutly earnest and so pure of heart that it feels like it has been beamed to us from another century.  Set roughly in the years between 1910 and 1916, it almost resembles an artifact from that period, something hewn or wrought out of stone or wood (a piece of furniture, an earthenware pot) rather than a film made with cameras and computers.  It follows the career of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Dyne), the sensitive and quick-witted daughter of Scottish farmers, as she weathers a series of personal tragedies with quiet resilience and tireless faith—values that few contemporary filmmakers (with the possible exception of that other Terrence, Malick) would even be interested in touching. 

When the film opens Chris is training to become a teacher while living under the thumb of her abusive father (played with gusto by the great character actor Peter Mullan, he of that magnificent croaking brogue).  After his death, Chris inherits the family farm, Blawearie, and eagerly steps into her new role as landowner, independent woman, and eligible bachelorette.  She wastes little time in arranging to marry the shiest and gentlest of the village boys, and they share a brief period of bliss until the storm clouds of World War I begin to gather.   

Chris’s story is set against the grandest of themes—land, war, family, God—and comes to take on a weight that we’re not used to seeing in movies anymore; at times it resembles vintage John Ford, How Green Was My Valley, perhaps, or one of D. H. Lawrence’s less absurd novels.  Davies handles his characters with an almost sacred respect.  There is humor there, and lust, but the experiences of Chris and her family are treated as (there is no other word) holy.  Framed against the majestic backdrop of the Scottish landscape, their humble lives take on a cosmic resonance.

The antique nature of Sunset Song is so subtly radical that some people are likely to be bothered by it, especially at moments when it escapes Davies’ control, or when he shows poor discernment about how to handle a particular detail.  When Chris, referring to herself in the third person through voice-over narration, tells about her identification with the Scottish countryside (“she felt she was the land…”), it somehow doesn’t seem ridiculous; then, ten minutes later, Davis attempts to score a montage sequence to the kitschiest possible arrangement of a traditional folk song, and the whole thing threatens to congeal.  I’ve always found Davies to be maddening in this respect; at his best (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) he’s able to use music, editing, and camera movement to create the most extraordinary effects, and at his worst (The House of Mirth) everything becomes embalmed, leaden.  There is much to love about Sunset Song, however, and its power sneaks up on you.  It contains a heart-stoppingly beautiful sequence toward the end, a vignette that unfolds over a series of tracking shots linked by dissolves to the sound of the Scottish hymn “All in the April Evening,” that is sure to be one of the best scenes I’ll see in a movie all year.  By the time the credits roll it’s difficult not to be bowled over by the grace of Davies’ vision.

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