Many consider Lewis Grassic Gibbon the preeminent Scots novelist of the Twentieth Century—and he may have aspired to something like the Great Scots Novel with his Scots Quair trilogy. They were written in a kind of simplified Gaelic-flavored vernacular intended to be accessible to any English speaker buying them off a stall in London, while still reflecting a sort of cultural nationalism. If you call a baby a “bairne” in today’s Glasgow, someone will probably slug you, but it is just plain speaking to the residents of Grassic Gibbon’s Kinraddie. However, times are changing for the tenant farmers. The people are becoming far less tied to land. Unfortunately, the Twentieth Century will intrude in more tragic ways during the course of Terence Davies’ adaptation of Sunset Song (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.
There are the stirrings of modernity in Chris Guthrie, but she still feels her ancestral connection to the earth. It is about the only thing her cruel, rigidly Calvinistic father John Guthrie ever gave her. She could have been a teacher, but she opts to stay at home to help her beleaguered mother and do her best to run interference for her rebellious brother Will. Eventually, circumstances even break her seemingly indestructible father, rendering him bed-ridden. Yet, even in such a state, he has fresh abuse to offer in the form of unwelcome incestuous advances.
Grassic Gibbon spared his heroine little and Davies is faithful to nearly every trial and tribulation. Briefly, Guthrie’s life appears to take a turn towards genuine happiness when she marries the deeply smitten Ewan Tavendale, but their wedded bliss is not to last. Unable to withstand the pressure from the rest of Kinraddie, Tavendale enlists for service in the great war to end all wars (which might be the last time Scotland was hawkish). Like most servicemen, Tavendale discovers modern warfare was not what he expected, except it is even worse for him.
Guthrie will evolve over the course of the trilogy, but Sunset is a story of basic emotional survival rather than empowerment. There is some tough stuff in the film, but the living was tough in rural Northeast Scotland at that time (it probably still is). Yet, it clearly reflects the sort of elegiac nostalgia that runs throughout Davies’ films. Clearly, he argues real dignity can be found in working the land—certainly more so than in trench warfare. In fact, the more familiar viewers are with Davies’ oeuvre, the more they will appreciate Sunset. Not unlike his near namesake Malick, his meditative and naturalistic inclinations requirement some acclimatization on the viewers’ part.
As one would expect, Michael McDonough’s cinematography is visually stunning, using the wheat fields as a rapturous canvas. However, the real shock is the visceral power of former model Agyness Deyn’s performance as Chris Guthrie. We see each new wound compound inside her and marvel as she ratchets up her resolve once again. Deyn was actually pretty good in Luis Prieto’s Pusher remake, but that was nothing like this. Her Chris Guthrie is worthy of being considered a hardscrabble Scarlet O’Hara.
Regrettably, Davies and the usually rock solid Peter Mullan portray John Guthrie as an incomprehensible monster. As a result, Chris Guthrie’s epiphany that her father was just an unfortunate product of his environment and her resulting grief is largely lost on viewers. Indeed, Davies seems to wallow in miserablism to an unhealthy extent.