A recurring theme to Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel Sunset Song, and now Terence Davies’ near twenty year long awaited adaptation, is loss for protagonist Chris Guthrie. All those around her – family, friends, community – leave her life in one way or another. She even ends up losing the man she loved – physically, spiritually and unapologetic. It’s one of the finest female roles written and Agyness Deyn stunningly captures her innocence, determination and sharp trajectory into womanhood. She is tender, raw and wholly affecting; an embodiment of the film itself. How sad it is that we came so close we came to losing it.
This is an exquisite and sublime adaptation that speaks straight to the Scottish condition. In a way, it is perfect material for a man of Davies’ conventional and traditional sensibilities who executes his style with no less than complete integrity. His canon, and his well documented passion for realising this film, resonates in the hearts of viewers. The panning and tracking shots, which Davies has always incorporated in such mesmerising fashion – are as much of a character here as the famed land is claimed to be. Davies delicately takes his time, just as Chris achingly bides her time for good fortunes and they accentuate Chris’ own graceful flow. It’s quite something when a scene of marital rape, which is a truly harrowing and heartbreaking moment, has an evocative tinge of beauty in how Davies descends it into darkness. This awkward juxtaposition adds a richness to the heralded source material.
This scene is preceded by Chris’ husband, Ewan Tavendale, being conscripted into World War One. He returns on leave a brutally changed man, exposed to violence and prostitution that his community life has shielded him from. This return and its level of change is abrupt, dramatised through exposition and cliche unlike the rest of the film. In a Q&A following the preview screening in Glasgow, actor Kevin Guthrie who plays Ewan argues that this abruptness and the sheer volume of his new character puts the viewer in Chris’ perspective. She is seeing him like this for the first time as well and should feel as unexpected and bewildered as we do watching it. But it is the contrivance of the situation, which I don’t know whether is similarly apparent in the novel, that degrades the film’s otherwise believable nature and tonal achievements. To immediately treat his child in such a cruel and domineering way, despite his undoubtedly horrible experiences, just doesn’t float with how Gibbon and Davies have portrayed this man previously. It plays as artificially creating another figure like her father for Chris to overcome and Ewan’s character then becomes just as one dimensional as John Guthrie. Peter Mullan can play that convincingly all day long, and it is effective here for what it is, but Chris’ relationship with Ewan has much more meaning precisely because there is a foundation and context to it.
Towards the end of the film, Chris Guthrie profoundly states that nothing endures – except the land. Chris does endure though, symbolic of the land itself which she feels such a connection to. The film bookends with shots of her and the land as one. They are both beaten down, occasionally allowed to blossom, but always endure. And so does Terence Davies’ ability to make fabulous films.