Directed by Terence Davies
United Kingdom/Luxembourg | 135 minutes | World Premiere
MON | SEP 14 9:15 AM | TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 3
SUN | SEP 20 12:15 PM | Isabel Bader
Terrence Davies’ (Distant Voices, Still Lives) Sunset Song gets 3 out of 5 stars from us at FashCam. This competently directed “woman’s weepie” does a good job excavating the dire role of women with Chris, the daughter of a Scottish country farmer, around the eve of the First World War. All seems blissfully well with home and hearth till we witness with explosiveness a paternal act of disciplinary violence. And we begin to see how the family is destroyed and unraveled due to an overbearing and violently controlling father. Peter Mullan, one of my favorite actors, does a great job playing a craggy old abusive father – “craggy,” and “abusive” are epithets that are essentially stock persona for the actor by now, regardless of the historical period of his films.
Sunset Song is an adaptation of Lewis Gibbon’s book, a melodrama that shocked contemporary audiences in 1932 with its frank depictions of sexuality and childbirth. The frankness of these depictions, despite all the off-screen howling of pregnant mothers, and nude sex scenes, feels quite a bit less shocking now.
We are primarily aligned throughout with Chris, the heroine of the tale, played with genuine depth by model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn. We witness as Chris’ bookish dreams of becoming a schoolteacher are squashed by the death of her mother – an indirect result of her father’s brutishness.
Sunset Song is shot in a pared down style, letting the natural light and landscapes of Scotland literally shine. Michael McDonough (ASC) skillfully deploys light and texture as good as any landscape painter. Davies keeps framings fairly distant so as to allow the actors to perform with both body and gesture, instead of only their faces.
Period detail is convincing and set design and costumes give us an authentic glimpse into daily life on a Scottish farm. All of this was a little too aestheticized for my taste, especially given the horrible emotional turmoil so much of the film showcased. The senselessness of war, a woman suppressed by the power structures that contain her – are all very well done. The film is primarily Deyn’s and she delivers a solid performance, crying and weeping or stoically bearing her suffering on cue throughout. But Sunset Song is what the critics of the French journal Cahiers du Cinéma Jean-Comolli and Jean Narboni would have called a type “d” film: films that have progressive content but adhere to dominant formal practice. Sunset Song suffers from these stylistic practices being a little too dominant. It’s the kind of film that leaves middle-class audiences and tabloid critics feeling they’ve watched something “powerful” and “moving” but lets them go home to comfortable sleep thinking they’ve somehow participated in “culture”.