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3 December 2015updated 14 Sep 2021 3:05pm

Hardest harvest: the understated ache of Sunset Song

Terence Davies’s adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbons's 1932 novel hasn't "got legs" – that's the point.

By Ryan Gilbey

It’s been a hard-knock life for Terence Davies. His autobiographical trilogy of shorts, made between 1976 and 1983, applied a redemptive lyricism to sorrowful material, while his 1988 feature debut, Distant Voices, Still Lives, filtered an impoverished and often cruel Catholic upbringing through stylised scenes that verged on tableaux. (Think Wes Anderson, but downbeat.) He has had
a tough time putting tough lives on screen. Sunset Song (15), his adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel about the Scottish rural poor, was first into the starting blocks more than ten years ago, only to be scuppered when the Film Council told Davies: “It hasn’t got legs.” In its accidental way, that is rather an insightful comment on a picture that is rooted, still and timeless. Of course it hasn’t got legs. It’s about the immortality of the land amid the impermanence of life. That’s the point.

The film begins with one of its periodic sweeps across a rustling wheat field, the camera as dogged and methodical as a plough. A figure sits up suddenly in the middle of the crops and stares at the sky: this is Chris (Agyness Deyn), who becomes torn in the course of the film between her duties on the farm, where she lives with her parents and three siblings, and her yearning to be a teacher. Her father is a fire-and-brimstone tyrant, but then he is played by Peter Mullan, so it would be a disappointment if he were shown strumming a lute or putting out bowls of potpourri.

He forces himself violently on Chris’s mother despite her protests that four is enough for a family. In a deft piece of editing, the sound of her wailing merges seamlessly with her screams in childbirth nine months later. He also administers lashes to Chris’s older brother, Will (Jack Greenlees), for taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Davies’s shooting style is mostly discreet. When Chris is examining her naked body in the mirror after having her ankles caressed by a farm labourer (no one could say she doesn’t have legs), the camera is positioned on her shoulder so that we are looking through her eyes, as it were, and seeing her body as she sees it. But in the whipping scene, with Will scrunching his half-removed shirt in front of him and the light picking out the curves of his belly and shoulders, Davies lets a misplaced eroticism creep in. There’s a time and a place for sadomasochistic desire and this isn’t it, whatever his instincts tell him.

Tragedy strikes the family in a succession of small, decisive blows but the film’s vocabulary remains constant and unexcitable. Repetition and routine are used to impress upon us the passing of time. The camera takes up position at the foot of the stairs, an imposing crucifix just in view, for a series of shots in which someone is clomping up or down – to bid farewell to a body before the coffin lid is screwed down, or to await the arrival of a baby. Religious symbolism litters the frame: a bowl of bloody water in which a doctor washes his forearms, a close-up of the egg he eats for breakfast when his work is done, a near-frozen rendering of the Pietà in which Chris cradles Will’s wilted body. Through all this, the film is punctuated by Scottish folk songs and static images of the landscape. Dissolves between shots make it appear that people are melting into the earth or the sky. “Chris felt in the gloaming that she was the land,” the narrator says, in case we missed the point.

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Chris goes from caring for her father, who suffers a stroke, to tumbling into marriage with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). Both relationships become fraught and violent. Her refrain – “There are lovely things in this world, lovely that do not endure and the lovelier for that” – makes tangible the enduring ache of the film, which is just as well, because Davies is not a demonstrative film-maker. “Beware of passion,” said the embittered mother in his adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. “It always leads to something ugly.” It would be wrong to say that Sunset Song lacks passion, though it is slow, long, painstaking and often without apparent emphasis. But there is such a thing as holding emotion so tightly in check that it withers in the clutch of repression. Muted is all very well until it becomes inaudible.

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war