Terence Davies’ Sunset Song is the first feature length film adaptation of the classic Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel favoured by English teachers nationwide -in Scotland anyway-. It tells the story of a young woman coming of age in the early part of the 20th century.
This is an incredibly difficult task for me to review this as I know the book incredibly well. I spent my entire 5th year of high school tearing the thing apart for every tidbit of analysis that could be extracted from it so separating myself from that to consider it entirely as a film is a difficult task. I’m hopeful that I’ve managed to do a little bit of both but my main objective is to put across whether it works as a film or not.
Sunset Song follows Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) as she grows up in rural Scotland. She is the daughter of a farmer and is tasked with the chores that a woman would be expected to do around the house. Beyond that she has aspirations of becoming a teacher and shows an aptitude for learning. Several tragedies happen to her family which causes her to abandon her ambition and commit fully to caring for her family before becoming a farmer’s wife.
In the book there was a massive internal conflict for Chris as she was always torn between her roots represented by the land and education. She makes a choice but is never fully satisfied with it as her desire to learn often creeps out. I make this point because I can tell that the film was trying to drive at this conflict but never quite gives it the focus that it really deserves. Chris’ decision to abandon her dream of being a teacher happens too quickly and any sense of regret is never really referred to again.
It’s a huge missed opportunity as this was the driving focus of the narrative in the book and could have made Chris a very memorable and engaging character for this film to follow. Instead she seems to be a constant victim of circumstance and makes the best with what she’s got with very little regret for missing out on what she could have had.
Agyness Deyn gives a really uneven performance. When she plays Chris as young and innocent she does a good job. There’s a lot of curiosity in her glances and a very natural way in which she conducts herself. As Chris gets older the performance feels a lot more forced and Deyn doesn’t seem up to the task of the more heavily emotive material.
The film has a strong supporting cast with Peter Mullan as her father John Guthrie being a particular standout. He comes across as a terrifying presence but there’s a lot of pride and integrity beneath the surface. Mullan’s screen time is limited but his performance is really powerful and he manages to portray John’s changing moods perfectly.
Another significant presence in Chris’ life is Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), the man she marries. He’s fine in the role but struggles in some of the latter parts of the film where his character is supposed to undergo a profound change. There’s something missing in the relationship between him and Chris but that’s more down to a lack of screen time meaning that it isn’t developed as well as it could be. It’s possible that the whole thing could be believable but the necessary time is never spent on it.
Other characters important to the book such as Long Rob (Douglas Rankine) and Chae Strachan (Ian Pirie) come and go but don’t feature prominently. I think this was the right decision as the narrative should focus on Chris and their contribution to it should only be surrounding her but as a lover of the book I feel that something is lost by reducing their roles.
Another big part of the appeal of the book is that the town of Kinraddie feels like a real place with a community and colourful characters who contribute heavily to that. There’s also a dark side to it with the gossiping that goes on and all the judgmental talk about others. This film has none of that. Kinraddie simply feels like a nondescript place with no character of its own. It is never really established where Chris fits into it or how she is regarded by others. I can understand that sacrifices need to be made in order to bring the story to the screen but the sense of community was important in helping to establish Chris’ morality.
The story itself is uneven. It starts off well enough by solidly establishing Chis and her family while moving slowly through significant parts of her life but the second half of the film feels completely rushed and misses a lot of significant beats in the story. The second half is so poorly paced and the time could have been used a lot better. It’s definitely a complex story but this adaptation oversimplifies it by putting the focus in the wrong places.
One thing that struck me about the way the film was put together was that a lot of the dialogue was lifted word for word from the book. There was no real attempt to alter things to make them work better for a film so many of the scenes feel awkwardly staged for certain characters to have a particular conversation even though it doesn’t necessarily make sense. In many ways it’s like an adaptation of a Shakespeare play with how slavishly the film follows the specific dialogue written in the book. It’s not a bad thing as such but it often feels clunky in the execution. The narration that peppers the film doesn’t really work as it has Chris narrate her life in the third person. I found myself questioning who she was telling the story to. It felt like a cheat to get some of the poetic language from the book into the film.
Forgetting the book, does this work as a film? I’d have to say that it generally doesn’t. It’s a wonderfully complex story but I don’t think there’s anything here for those who haven’t read the book. The story as presented isn’t engaging enough to hold the attention for very long and many of the characters feel flat or unnecessary. I imagine this will be screened to English classes everywhere once it comes out on DVD/Blu Ray but the average cinema goer should look to Brooklyn for a more engaging coming of age narrative that very much works as a film.
An uneven experience that relies too heavily on the source material and falls flat as an engaging piece of cinema on its own.
At its core it’s a coming of age story for Chris Guthrie as she is forced to abandon her aspirations as a teacher to care for her family. The book that the film is adapted from establishes a constant internal conflict for Chris that really isn’t present here. She seems like more of a victim of circumstance rather than a young woman torn between two worlds.
Agyness Deyn does a good job in the early parts of the film but falters as Chris gets older. As Chris gets older the performance feels far more forced.
Peter Mullan does a great job as Chris’ father John Guthrie. He is a very terrifying presence who has a lot of pride and integrity beneath the surface. Mullan gives a really powerful performance in the little screen time that he has.
Kevin Guthrie does a fine job as Chris’ husband Ewan Tavendale but their relationship never gets to properly develop due to a lack of screen time to allow it to feel real. Guthrie also struggles later in the film when his character is supposed to undergo a profound change.
Other characters important to the book come and go which is the right choice since the focus is on Chris and they should only appear when they fit into that in some way. The lack of development of the Kinraddie community is a big loss as it makes the whole film suffer in terms of having Kinraddie feel like a real place.
The story itself is really uneven with a reasonably strong first half that gives way to a poorly placed second half that puts the focus of the narrative in the wrong places. This adaptation oversimplifies what should have been a complex story.
Since the dialogue is largely lifted word for word from the book it can feel clunky sometimes. It doesn’t always work on screen and there are some contrivances when specific people need to have particular conversations. The narration where Chris talks about her life in the third person doesn’t work either and feels like a cheat to get some of the poetic language from the book into the film.
Forgetting the book the real question is, does this work as a film? It largely doesn’t as the story isn’t engaging enough to entice a normal cinema goer unfamiliar with the source material. I imagine it will be screened in classrooms while studying the book but beyond that there are far more engaging coming of age stories.