Gorgeous Melodrama: “Sunset Song”
Period pieces have a tendency towards melodrama, let alone a female-led World War I era period piece adapted from a Scottish novel. Terence Davies’ Sunset Song hits every hallmark of a tear-jerking melodrama, but its real mark of pride lays in its stunning visuals.
Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) is an intelligent young woman growing up in Scotland during the early 1900’s. She endures many hardships, as her hard-hearted father John (Peter Mullan) pushes everyone away, eventually leaving Chris alone. Just as her life starts to look brighter with her marriage to her beloved Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), the Great War threatens to destroy their happy life.
The subject matter is quite grim, and the result is a novel that must have been difficult to adapt for the screen. The cast offers a heart-wrenching display, if occasionally overacted as a result of some sections of stiff dialogue. Deyn is a wonderful lead performer, and she is backed by Kevin Guthrie’s kind-eyed Ewan. The fantastic Peter Mullan is perfectly frightening as Chris’ tyrannical head-of-household.
Chris’ narrations serve the film well, as Deyn’s elegant voice offers an internal glimpse of the character’s development. Narration is an oft-used tool for book adaptations, but a necessary and enjoyable one at that. Davies chooses the proper moments to incorporate a narration, and it pays off.
The best part of this film is its visuals; Davies uses his expertise to create a world that, for all of its horrors, the audience enjoys getting lost in. The mise en scène is excellent, particularly in the costuming and set design. The picture plays the fine line between authenticity and beauty, offering at once a harrowing look at the filthy life of the time and a loving display of Scottish countryside. The costumes are layered, well-worn fabrics that tell the story of each character, and the interiors place the characters in a fleshed-out reality of their own.
The cinematography is another strong mark for Davies’ aesthetic choices. There are several shots which incorporate clever angles and sweeping movements in order to keep an exact pace. The film is particularly clever with its passages of time, making sure not to over-use crossfades. One particularly clever shot sees a carriage leaving the Guthrie homestead, only to spin around the landscape and return to the same carriage making its return some time later. In a story such as this one that spans many years it is crucial to keep a good pace, and Davies is precise enough to make the 2-hour runtime feel elegant and smooth.
The film is not necessarily perfect, with some stiff dialogue and moments of over-acting. In the performances, as with everything else in the picture, the true excellence comes from stunning visuals. Choice moments of silence offer the best performances in the film, and they are backed by a great cast. For anyone looking to get their money’s worth in tears, or for those who want to take a visual journey to gorgeous Scottish fields and century-old homes, this film is certainly worth a watch.
Sunset Song opens Friday, May 20th at The Hyland Cinema.
3.5 (out of 5)
Thomas Vickers is a London-based filmmaker and The Beat Magazine's resident film critic.