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? This sweeping epic of a woman’s challenging and liberating journey through rural patriarchy bears a premise reminiscent of a Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy work, but Davies’ isn’t simply in the business of ‘adaptation. .he 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 ever transcend the literary, Sunset Song probably does. And to answer my previous question, no. Sunset Song is perhaps a perfect title, although it celebrates a woman’s coming-of-age, for its titular sunset, by the film’s transcendent conclusion, gives way to a miraculous dawn, just as youth gives way to adulthood, winter to summer or, ultimately, life giving way to death.
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 as if blooming for the first time. Davies captures the hopefulness of springtide in a gorgeously composed shot of youthful bliss but, if one is familiar with the works of Terence Davies than one will suspect that this state of grace will only be short-lived.
The young Chris’s homestead is a rustic and peaceful overlay, but the family itself is fraught with demons and hardships. 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 here 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.
Here Davies channels the male form from a young female perspective; he relegates them predominantly to childlike to predatory, the former of the include like her brother who is introduced being cradled by Chris after a bloody whipping by her father). The predatory side is seen in the form of a farmhand the family takes in, who turns out to be a sexual deviant (groping Chris in the barn). Davies explores the hostile world where, to the male, women are seen as either maternal figures or sexual objects. As it is in the film, both in their own way enforce a captive-like docility, one that helps push Chris to discover her own feminine identity outside these roles.
John, her father, and Ewan, her suitor, form Chris’s most dominant perspective of the male form, both as vivid counterpoints. With her father, the man she’s forced to care for once he falls gravely ill, she sees both a figure of oppression and, in the father’s final days, childlike vulnerability. In the latter state, Chris adopts her old man’s cruelty and allows him to prematurely succumb to his illness, discovering a new (if somewhat terrible) sense of power she holds over her destiny. With Ewan, we witness both the bliss and trials of love, the comprises Chris is forced to make with her newfound sense of freedom and identity when discovering romance for the first. Where the father brings the worst out of Chris’s self, Ewan brings out the best, a counterbalance between a woman with the power over her decisions.
Of course, Davies’ pits these discoveries of the self against a astonishing backdrop of transience and eternity. A divine, contradictory sense of the spiritual infinite and ephemeral seem make up Davies’ seemingly secluded Scotland parish. The lapses of time and visual ellipses form around the characters, keeping their moments in tune with the ever subtle passages of time. Sunset Song possesses something of a deep internalization of character and external awareness of time, where months and years seem to come and go without a notice, but select moments—Chris’s wedding night, her husband Ewan’s PTSD-fueled tirade—seem to go on forever. The emphasis on in-the-moment catharsis in Sunset Song makes Davies’ adaptation feels not so much like a story being told but memories relived.
Davies’, a spiritual filmmaker through-and-through, is no typical dramatist. His stories don’t move in linear dramatic structures, moving from one plot point to the other, but rather yield to the harsh and embittered passage of time. Despite that, Terence Davies’ Sunset Song never feels clunky or arrhythmic for it. Terence Davies composes his 135-minute film around moments of trauma and euphoria, memories that seem to outlast the days, months, years and ultimately transcend them. To this day Davies remains very much the same director who bared his soul to us with Distant Lives, Still Voices and The Long Day Closes, however his template has changed vastly. Sunset Song is by no means a classical literary adaptation.