‘Sunset Song’ an uneven retread

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I know devotees of Terence Davies who lament his choices in the last twenty-five years. Instead of creating original material that might compete with a film as singular as The Long Day Closes, the English director has turned to adaptations: the muddled The Neon Bible (1995), his excellent take on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000), a radio adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a vital restaging of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2012). Call it a retreat. Or a recalibration. A project he has tried to film more than once, Sunset Song finally arrives in theaters. He loved Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel to distraction. This meticulous depiction of rural Scotland in the early twentieth century is a most enjoyable picture that suffers from an uneven rhythm.

Davies’ use of 360 degree tracking shots and a combination of digital and anamorphic 65mm photography gives Sunset Song its pantheistic splendor. As cruel as the land can be, as merciless the weather on the Guthrie farm, Blawearie, Chris (Agnyess Deyn) has deep attachments anyway. This in spite of the malice shown by her father (Peter Mullan, crowning a career of playing tyrants), who whips her brother with a crop for cursing. The actor, Jack Greenless, faces the camera for the whipping, removing his shirt slowly as if in a strip tease; it’s one of the few moments in Sunset Song in which Davies reverts to his reflexive homoeroticism. Otherwise life is grim stuff for the Guthries. Chris goes to school and learns Latin while her mother endures another agonizing pregnancy, her screams filling the home. A hired hand, catching her alone in the barn, ravishes her ankles as if they were bare breasts. She has enough: later she and her baby twins will swallow poison. Chris’ aunt and uncle take her while Guthrie falls apart. He will suffer a stroke. In the novel, Guthrie will try to seduce his daughter. Davies instead shows Guthrie falling out of bed screaming her name while Chris silently locks the door behind her. When her stern aunt insists that she kiss him goodbye at the funeral, Chris is unmoved.

A good thing too, for Sunset Song‘s pace and mood change from this point. Established as a woman of modest means according to the terms of her father’s will, Chris moves into Blawearie herself. The voice-over gets more pronounced, the hills mistier. Then Ewan (Kevin Guthrie, as charming as Emory Cohen playing a similar role in last year’s Brooklyn) enters the picture. They are not in love so much as trying to turn their mutual lust into love; after their wedding party, there’s a suggestive shot of Ewan walking through an open doorway into a delicate snowfall, and it’s possible to imagine his body heat repelling the flakes. A childbirth as painful as her mother’s interrupts their Blawearie idyll, auguring the shots fired a continent away at a Serbian archduke. A reluctant Ewan enlists after enduring the suggestion from the village pastor and neighbors that he’s a coward. When he returns from France his gentle spirit is gone, deformed by war.

Sunset Song deserves plaudits for positing a marriage as a commingling of sex and labor that rebukes the idea of gender divisions. Chris, with her androgynous name, is clearly in charge. Ewan looks content to be the supporting actor. In the fields she does as much heavy lifting as he (the reissue of Jan Troell’s The New Land makes for a perfect study of complements: toil and hardships don’t slacken the intensity of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann’s erotic bond). One of the more realistic depictions of sex happens on the wedding night. Starting with a closeup of clenched bare feet, the camera tracks up the bed to Chris and Ewan, nude and nubile and out of shape in that recognizably pre-modern way, in a passionate clinch. Until the war years they can’t stop making out. Without the appeal of Guthrie and Deyn these scenes would look callow.

With its glops of the aforementioned voice-over, cutaways to the Scottish terrain (shot in New Zealand), and scenes of a beautiful couple using horse plows, Sunset Song evokes The New Land and Roman Polanski’s Tess, but it’s closer to Days of Heaven; Davies is a less wooly-headed Terrence Malick. But the film, both over- and underplotted, can’t decide what it wants to linger on. So enraptured with Gibbon’s prose is Davies that for once in his career he distrusts his camera; Michael McDonough’s work here is the kind that gets Oscar nominations for pretty pictures. More troubling, Sunset Song aestheticizes some of the novel’s horrors. I refer to a scene in which Davies glides over the evil mud of the Marne for what it seems like minutes while a robust male voice croons a hymn. The best of Sunset Song doesn’t try so hard. My favorite moment, as they often do in Davies films, happens to include a song, another hymn: old Guthrie, in an infrequent gentle mood, with his young family, teasing out the words. Recall Tom Hiddleston coaxing Rachel Weisz into singing “You Belong to Me” in The Deep Blue Sea; recall The Long Day Closes‘ Leigh McCormack swept up by Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy.” Struggling to play a conception who’s closer to a figure in a parable than a human being, Deyn looks walloped, dazed. A film about a woman using her education to cultivate her fields and her sense of interiority would be a rare thing, and this material was in the novel, awaiting the shaping hands of an imaginative director.

To love Sunset Song is to accede to Davies. In a career spent delineating the intersection of remembered happiness, the potency of retired lusts, and our urge to fictionalize, Davies is too comfortable with Gibbon. He fusses over the familiar. It has the feel of a production he needed out of his system. And it worked: he’ll be back later this year with a film about another woman and her own deepening interiority.

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