There is really a lot of gorgeous, lyrical, period flavor here–so I certainly want this review to read as a recommendation. If not for an abrupt tonal shift for the last act, I may have considered this amongst the year’s very best. It’s still a rapturous work, from the masterful Terence Davies, who wowed me with his 2000 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth”, as well as 2012’s astonishingly controlled “The Deep Blue Sea”. And “Sunset Song” stars Agyness Deyn, an English fashion model, who has been featured on the cover of Vogue, but has a very short, and relatively undistinguished film career. That should change. She’s astonishing here. It’s an incredible, star-making performance.
“Sunset Song”, based on the novel of the same name by Lewis Grassic Gibbons, tells the story of Chrissie Guthrie (Ms. Deyn), the young adult daughter of a farming family in Scotland, during the early 20th century. Working as a maid, but studying to be a teacher, young Chris feels somewhat trapped by her rural life, while under the rule of her domineering father (Peter Mullan…exceptional). Her father drives her poor brother away (Jack Greenlees), while her mother (Daniela Nardini) struggles to fend off her husband’s sexual advances, in hopes of not adding to their lot of four children. When Chrissie’s mother dies suddenly (and in a ghastly way, along with others), and her father suffers a stroke, she is left in a quandary concerning her life’s direction. Soon, she enters into a relationship with handsome Ewan Tavendale (a very effective Kevin Guthrie). But before long, World War I bluntly enters all of their lives.
Terence Davies penned the screenplay for “Sunset Song” as well, and I admire his patient, unhurried, epic approach to the material. Not that his male performers ever desert him, but his success with his female leads is of particular note. That includes Gillian Anderson in “The House of Mirth”, Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea”, and now Ms. Deyn. Talk about mining the depths of emotion and fortitude. Davies also exhibits the brutality of this harsh, Scottish landscape, and that among the population at hand. It feels achingly authentic, while also poetic in its narrative and narration. That eventual shift in the story is not fatal…but it’s jarring. However, the lilting songs, and the visceral feel, along with the breathtaking cinematography from Michael McDonough, more than makes up for the lapse.