Sunset Song (2015)

This British drama made the rounds at film festivals and rated mentions from a number of critics, but it didn’t exactly blow people away. It was directed by Terence Davies, a director unknown to me, and is an adaptation of famous Scottish novel of the same name by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

Chris Guthrie is a young woman who was born in and has lived for her entire life in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in Scotland. Her father is a farmer who work the land hard and runs the family with a similarly heavy hand. When her mother gives birth to twins, adding to Chris, her beloved elder brother Will and two much younger children, the family moves to a new estate called Blawearie, which Chris comes to love. However when her mother becomes pregnant again, she kills herself and the infant twins. Eventually Will marries and emigrates to Argentina, leaving Chris alone to live with her father. For a time, they work the farm together with hired help until her father is felled by a stroke and later dies. Soon after that, Chris inherits the farm, marries a local young man, Ewan, and has a child of her own. Life seems perfect for a time until the First World War arrives and Ewan feels forced to enlist or be branded a coward.

My wife didn’t much care for this film and indeed while it depicts a hard life, especially for the women, the overall tone is a pleasant one, full of fond memories of a way of life that no longer exists. Ewan comes home on leave scarred by experience in the war and in his behavior towards Chris changes, but there are no scenes of blood and gore. It reminded me quite a bit of How Green Was My Valley, by being a film whose main purpose is to record a slice of a community’s history for posterity. The camera delights in showing the rolling moors, the fields of golden crops, the picturesque stone cottages and town buildings. It makes for a rather effective tourism advertisement for Scotland. As usual this rose-tinted glasses view results in a powerful sense of nostalgia but also makes this a rather simple and somewhat sentimental film. On the whole the direction here is competent but it’s also bland and straightforward.

For my part, I found myself being quite fond of it despite its simplicity and lack of ambition. Part of it I think is due to a residual attachment to all things British due to an English language education. The combination of time, place and the rural setting ticks off just the right nostalgia boxes for me though of course I’m not British. This is helped by the deliberate use of language in the film. I found it a bit jarring that the narration uses the voice of the actress who plays Chris, Agyness Deyn, but speaks of the character in the third person. But I’m guessing that this comes straight out of the novel as there is a poetry-like quality to the writing, evoking wonderful images of Chris’ deep sense of connection with the land and how she finds herself wholeheartedly embracing this way of life even while being conscious of the many missed opportunities in the wider world. I understand that the language used is an artificial version of the actual Scots language, designed to give you a sense of what it sounds like while still being comprehensible to English speakers. It may not be authentic but as far as I’m concerned it does the job perfectly of conjuring up the intended atmosphere.

As I understand it, the novel touches on broader themes including the appearance of motor vehicles, Chris’ struggles over whether or not to continue her education and the political views of the different characters. This makes it even more obvious how unambitious and by the numbers this particular adaptation is. On the whole, it’s not in any way an outstanding work, I found it to be a respectable enough effort and a film that is enjoyable and pleasant to watch.

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