The latest film from director, Terence Davies, Sunset Song is a long-awaited and lovingly faithful adaptation of the Scottish classic by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The story centres on the coming-of-age of Chris Guthrie as we see her confronting the demands of womanhood as well as the tumultuous changes threatening the rural community of Kinraddie.
With her character being such an integral part of the film, Agyness Deyn‘s performance is absolutely essential to its success and on the whole I’d say she does admirably. Introducing the film at its Edinburgh premiere, Deyn spoke briefly about the way she had been impacted by the character, drawing from her an ideal of womanhood that is strong without being hard, and ultimately rooted in kindness. This quality definies her portrayal of Chris and the film stands as a critique of the idea that femininity entails weakness. However, Chris is the only female character permitted this strength, while the rest of the women are cast in subdued roles. Also, her endurance can sometimes come across as mere passivity, with many scenes focusing on her emotionally responding to events, rather than having an active role in these.
As much as I enjoy Grassic Gibbon’s prose, Davies’ decision to pepper the film with narrated quotes from the text felt unpleasantly intrusive. It seemed to show a lack of confidence in Deyn’s abilities, overshadowing her performance with the iconic Chris of the novel.
While there were some genuinely affecting moments throughout, these tended to live in the smaller everyday scenes rather than the big emotional beats the film strains toward. For instance, Deyn’s hoarse rendition of ‘Flowers of the Forest’ fell flat for me, but a following shot of the bride and groom sitting silently in the empty wedding hall really captures the weight of the moment as the young couple confront each other. It had the same quality as the final minutes of The Graduate, and really underscored the hugeness of their commitment without being heavy-handed.
Sadly, the structure of the film doesn’t leave much room for these quieter, more intimate scenes as it moves unrelentingly through a cycle of births, marriages and deaths, strictly adhering to the seasonal rhythms of the source material. The drama climaxes with the advent of the First World War, with Davies avoiding outright depictions of conflict and instead slowly panning over the ravaged battlefield.
While this adaptation is undeniably gorgeous with some affecting moments, the failure to give us Chris as a living, breathing, woman – and not an overburdened symbol for Caledonia – robs it of some of its power.
Sunset Song will be showing in UK theatres from the 4th of December.