Rating: 3 / 5
Sunset Song is described as an intimate epic of hope, tragedy and love at the dawning of the Great War.
At two hours and 16 minutes long, it is certainly an epic. While it is rich in subject matter with truly beautiful cinematography, this epic would have packed more of a punch had it been 96 minutes, rather than 136.
Director Terence Davies describes it as a story of the power and cruelty of both family and nature, and the enduring presence of the land and the courage of the human spirit in the face of hardship.
At the start we meet teenager Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), passionate about her education and determined to become a teacher. However, the tragic death of her mother breaks up her family, and Chris is left alone to work on the farm with her harsh father and run the house, all thoughts of education and a career dashed from her.
When her father John (Peter Mullan) suffers a massive stroke and is bedridden, she is forced to care for him and keep the farm going.
His death soon follows, and Chris marries Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). For a couple of years they are blissfully happy and they have a son. But the guns of war are sounding, and Chris’s husband Ewan signs up.
Chris longs for the day of his return, but when he does briefly come home on leave, he has been brutalised by his war experiences, and their relationship changes to one of domestic violence. It’s a relief for her when he returns to his job as a soldier.
But there’s no happy ending, with news of his death reaching Chris, and her discovery that his death was not heroic.
Just as I was wondering how much darker this film could get, there is a note of hope and survival, with the songs of voices and the pipes, and Chris’s enduring stoicism indicating that life will go on, and that she is one of nature’s survivors.
Sunset Song makes valid points about the horrifying ripple effect of war on individuals and their community, and we do have sympathy for the victims of atrocities like Ewan, as well as admiration for Chris for her determination to look to the future.
The performances are uniformly extraordinarily good.
Deyn was the big surprise for me—with her alabaster skin and piercing blue eyes it’s no wonder she was a model who graced the cover of Vogue in 2006. She has a natural intensity on the screen that grips the audience. She is modest about her considerable acting abilities, saying, ‘I never had formal drama school training; I just picked things up as I’ve gone along.’ She is so good that you would assume she had been trained for film acting since the cradle.
Mullan and Guthrie are equally convincing, but the extended length of the film detracts from its power and message. It is a worthy film, and patient filmgoers won’t mind its length, especially with the beautiful shots of rural Scotland. But for me this is a film where less would have been more.
Highlight: Agyness Deyn, superb cinematography
Red flag: nudity, coarse language, and occasional graphic violence