In Terence Davies’ 2015 film, Sunset Song, his resilient heroine Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) spends considerable time looking out the windows of her house. His camera patiently observes her, reminding us that she is at a crossroads, caught between her love of the land of her birth and her desire to flee it.
Adapted by Davies from the beloved 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song traces Chris’s growth from innocence to experience, from girl to woman. We first meet her as a 14-year-old schoolgirl around 1911. The camera moves slowly up a field of barley. We hear birdsong and a gentle wind. And then she rises, like a leaf of grass, as the sound of the distant school bell tolls. It’s a simple yet majestic introduction to the landscape and to Davies’ protagonist.
Tied to this land in an almost primeval way, Chris is nevertheless filled with aspirations for a life of learning and books. The life of the mind offers an escape from a fate like her mother’s, circumscribed by the farm and the will of men. Davies shapes Chris’s struggle for self-actualisation as a distinctly feminist one — the narrative’s arc is composed around her subjectivity and desires. But life in her rural Northern Scotland community of Kinraddie is tough and dominated by men, and circumstances build to grind her dreams into the dirt.
Shot in Scotland, New Zealand, and Luxembourg, Sunset Song’s rugged scenery is both sublime and brutal, mirroring the extremes of experience within the narrative. Cinematographer Michael McDonough captures these lush vistas of farm life on 65mm film; its shallow depth of field provides richness and detail to the exterior shots. But Davies’ focus is typically intimate. Interiors and shots of staircases abound (recalling similar scenes in his earlier film Distant Voices, Still Lives). We rarely leave Chris’s side; tethered to home and hearth beside her.
Agonies caused by men dominate Chris’s struggles. Her violent farmer father, John (played with trademark ferocity by Peter Mullan), rules with scripture and fear. He regularly administers beatings to his eldest son Will (Jack Greenlees) and forces himself on wife Jean (Daniela Nardini), who lives in constant fear of pregnancy and childbirth. Yet Davies keeps us at a distance from the violence. In a scene in which John beats his son with a belt, Davies positions the camera clinically in front of Will and doesn’t move it. We watch the beating, then we watch Will slowly put his clothes back on when his father is done. His bleeding welts are only revealed in the following scene when we see him comforted by Chris, in a pose reminiscent of the pietà.
Despite the violent forces that have shaped her world, Chris endures and indeed prospers. The gloomy palette of her father’s rule lifts with his death; light enters the house and Chris’s heart. Chris experiences the ironic freedom that death can provide. She becomes mistress of the farm, Blawearie: a woman of means who uses her intelligence and courage to forge a life on her own terms.
Able to marry for love, she chooses Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), who adores her. Davies encourages us to luxuriate in this worship and in the peaceful interlude marriage provides. There are moments of ecstasy: Ewan and Chris’s first kiss in the barn, and Chris’s sense of complete contentment, when he holds her in his arms by the warm light of the fire as they plan their future. During the extended wedding party scene, Davies employs one of his trademark conventions — a group sing-along, here of “Auld Lang Syne” (they marry on New Year’s Eve), to show how the marriage strengthens Chris’s place within the community.
An admirer of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, most of Davies’ films are concerned with time and memory, in particular, the overlapping space between the past, present, and future. In Sunset Song, an extraordinary circular tracking shot moves the narrative forward, but also says something vital about the cyclical nature of time. We see Chris standing before her house watching her aunt and uncle leave, and as the camera circles around and back, we see the arrival of her new companion, Mistress Melon, later that day. Chris is in the present, where we left her, as the past and future pass over each other. As guided by Davies’ elegant, painterly touch, even in the midst of chaos, time moves gracefully. Black night dissolves into yellow day. Chris and Ewan’s declaration of love by the fireplace dissolves into preparations for their wedding.
But Chris’s joy is relatively short-lived. The spectre of the First World War shatters her golden life when Ewan returns from the Western front a changed man. He now resembles her menacing father more than the gentle man she fell in love with. A repeated proclamation cautions: “There are lovely things in the world. Lovely that don’t endure, and all the lovelier for that.” Contrasting images of the celestial fields of home with the muddy graves of Belgium and France ultimately evoke the same idea; that “nothing endures but the land.”
Deyn’s naturalistic performance captures her determination in the face of toxic masculinity and its wreckage. She conveys a quiet inner strength through a calm exterior, holding herself with an almost regal grace. Deyn may not entirely convince as a 14-year-old, but she captures Chris’s growing confidence with intelligence and ease.
Davies loves his characters dearly, and without sentiment. Life, as most of his films attest, is far too brutal for that. Like an image caught in a windowpane, he sees life’s beauty as fragile and fleeting. The sun is setting on youth, on innocence, and on the lovely things of the past that can’t endure. But this film will.