About 10 years ago, I was taken to see a touring production of Sunset Song, adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel. To my childhood self, the play seemed slow and uneventful. In fact, it was downright impossible to follow, what with the excessive use of east-coast Scots dialect and the erratic tempers of various characters. On reflection, my ticket was a complete waste of someone else’s money and the whole experience left me tired and frustrated.
Imagine then my relief when, having sat through Terence Davies recent cinematic adaptation of Sunset Song, I emerged from the cinema feeling tired and frustrated. My inner-child has been vindicated entirely; this is a frustrating film.
Sunset Song is the story of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), an intelligent young woman living on the fictional estate of Kinraddie near Aberdeen. There she helps run the family farm with her beleaguered mother, abusive father, beloved brother and several other siblings. Soon the family falls into decline, leaving Chris and her husband Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) to run the holding themselves. It’s a grim story in print and, to Davies’ credit, it’s pretty grim on the big screen as well.
What is, however, unclear at any point in the film is Davies’ objective; what is he trying to achieve with this grim adaptation? This problem seems to be an eternal dilemma for the directors of movies based on books – how faithfully should the former follow the latter? It’s a tough balance to strike, more so when it comes to adapting Grassic Gibbon’s novel. But there are no prizes for effort. Many directors, some with stronger reputations than Davies, have been responsible for making uniquely bad adaptations. That said, even if one forgets the novel Sunset Song, it is still hard to enjoy Davies’ film.
Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps one cannot, indeed should not, divorce the novel from an assessment of the film. Perhaps the problem is the novel. This seems to make sense, given how literary Sunset Song is and how dense the prose is with the language and landscape of Scotland’s east-coast. In Davies’ production the language does not present any impediment to understanding. While this may make the film more accessible to a non-Scottish audience, it does detract from any sense of locality that one might expect to find in the film. As for the landscape, the beautiful shots of the hills around Kinraddie that pepper the film are one of its few saving graces. But sadly, that’s all the land does in the film. Any notion that Chris Gurthrie is deeply rooted to the land comes once at the start, disappears for two hours, and returns unexpectedly at the end. If the land is supposed to act as a unifying motif for the narrative, as Agyness Deyn’s insufferable voiceover hints at, then it fails. It fails because the audience does not see enough of the landscape to appreciate any profound significance it holds for the characters.
Had the landscape come to the fore, as it allegedly does in Chris’ own mind, the audience might have better understood her conflict between her attachment to the land and her ambitions to become a teacher. This potential conflict rears its head once and then swiftly disappears again. So too does the conflict between old and new farming methods and the political conflicts between young radicals and old traditionalists. The story is rife with dilemmas and, rather than address any of them fully, they are left to rapidly dissolve into the fabric of everyday life. As such, Davies tries to do too much with his film and, in the process, misses numerous opportunities to draw more from his characters, especially the protagonist.
Given the amount of trauma and hardship visited on Chris Guthrie, one would expect to get a sense of the emotional (and physical) toil that accompanies such experience. Sadly, with Agyness Deyn, it fails to emerge. The voiceover might insist on the existence of several manifestations of Chris Gurthrie as a result of her character’s perpetual battle with life, but on screen there is only one, rather dull Chris. Consequently, Deyn’s performance adds little to an otherwise mediocre film. Familial and marital conflicts do nothing to draw out the fierce, independent spirit that lies deep in Chris’ character. The audience is treated to brief flashes of what such a spirit might look like. Yet these flashes, like the conflicts that provoke them, disintegrate as quickly as they appear.
Anyone looking for an escape from the season of cringe-worthy classics and over-hyped blockbusters will find little reprieve in Sunset Song. The potential of every cast member, including the venerable Peter Mullan, feels stifled and the whole thing hangs together as well as decade-old tinsel. In short, from start to finish, this film promises much and delivers little.