Sunset Song. Directed by Terence Davies. 2015

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with Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie.

Chris Guthrie is an intelligent student who would like to be a teacher and has scored high enough on tests to enter college and fulfill her wish. But the time is 1912, the place Scotland, her father and mother hard working farmers.

Brutish to the extreme, her father forces her mother to have sex, getting her pregnant, even though she is old enough to have teen children, and when she delivers twins, we hear the blood curdling cries. In tone, they are not that different from  their  screaming during sex. These sounds punctuate a movie that portrays women as long suffering heroic figures, stalwarts who hold up the family when they are not being treated as slaves.

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Terence Davies clearly wants to be true to the novel written in the 1930s, and tells the story entirely from the girl’s point of view.  The landscape also has an important role and acts as a most important character. As the movie opens, the camera focuses in close up on the field of wheat, we hear the sounds of birds, the wind riffling through the beautiful golden stalks. Then the girl stands up, and you realize she has been lying on the earth which she feels very tied to.

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Yet she also wants to be happy. When given the chance, she grabs it, even though others frown upon her. A censorious aunt and uncle are not enough of a reason to postpone her marriage to the kind, tender Ewan, a friend of her brother’s, who is genuinely smitten with her.  Agyness Deyn, who plays her,  was until recently a fashion model, and the there is no angle of her face that is unpleasing. Since she is in every scene, though, it is important that she not just look good, but impart feelings large and small as the wrenching events of the story take place.

The first third of the movie concerns her adolescence, and aspirations as a teacher. Early marriage and motherhood take up the middle. Then at the end, she suffers a loss so grave it tries her to the core. All through these searing events, the land takes its place as the center of everyone’s lives. The seasons pass in their rapturous beauty: spring with its pale green buds, summer with its fulsome flower, and autumn as harvest begins are especially memorable. But the girl is married on New Year’s Eve and must traipse out in the snow after the guests have gone home from the barn dance, and it is then that the true nature of living in rural places takes root.

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I only wish the movie had a more lively pace towards the end. As it becomes clear that World War I will interrupt everyone’s happiness, the movie begins to slog, and long hymns are sung in their entirety when surely a snippet would do. The husband returns home a changed man, without an explanation except that he must have seen gruesome things and is behaving in a way that copies it.  Even in the beginning when the father’s beastly nature is shown while beating his son, it feels sadistic to force us to watch the full extent of the whipping.

All praise go to a move with complete identification of a woman who struggles, suffers, has raptures, agonies, the full gamut of human experience. It is rare for a male director to get something so right when it comes to a woman. Agyness Deyn captures the young life of a girl whose life is worth knowing about, that middle class Scottish lass who can sing a melancholy song at her own wedding.

 

 

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About Patricia Markert

Moviegoer.
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