NZIFF ’16/01 – SUNSET SONG

2015; adapted and directed by Terence Davies; 135 mins

First of the fest and this is gonna be hard to beat! There’s only really four films that’ve made me cry before. I well up quite a bit but rarely do the tears go over the brink but one fell out and then afterwards I very nearly burst into floods as I walked out of the foyer. This is the moment at which I have been completely won over to Terence Davies as a filmmaker.

Based on the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and set in Aberdeenshire in the 1910s, the film tells the story of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), a farmer’s daughter who, at the outset, is very bookish and looking to become a teacher. Her home life is incredibly fraught due to the tyrannical rule of her abusive father (Peter Mullan). Gradually, her family is stripped away from her until she is left running the farm by herself but true love comes in the form of her brother’s friend, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie). However, war is just round the corner, threatening to tear everything apart once again…

The posters are actually quite a misnomer for this film. They’re promoting a film that looks like it would be perfect on telly with a cup of tea on a Sunday afternoon. Now! I’m not saying I wouldn’t watch it under those conditions but it suggests a nice, comfy, British film the likes of which has been trailed before movies quite a bit recently and generally look like shite. This is not that film – it has pretty raw depictions of domestic abuse, rape, suicide, infanticide and families riven apart by patriarchy and bureaucracy. The emotions on display are much more raw and keenly felt than your average episode of Downton Abbey. In a way, Davies is like Nicolas Winding Refn (which is an odd connection but stick with me): Refn’s work falls into the cracks between arthouse and exploitation and so, with the exception of Drive, he may just always be a cult director, stuck between two tastes and relying on fans who get him. Davies’ work appears to be too genteel and mainstream to get lovers of heart-wrenching art cinema in but is possibly too shocking for an older audience looking for Monarch of the Glen. Case in point, I really thought my granny would love 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea – she just called it weird.

Because of Davies’ upbringing which informed so much of his early work and also 2008’s Liverpool documentary Of Time and the City, his films are that bit more affecting because he loves that old-timey style of classical Hollywood storytelling but he wears his passion on his sleeve. His melodramas hit home so much more because he seems to really know what deep, destructive heartache and pariah status is.

It’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. The exteriors were shot on 65mm film in Scotland, New Zealand and Luxembourg and the interiors shot on digital and all look gorgeous, proving that the arguments of film v digital are mostly bollocks: both have their place! If I noticed right, it seemed like the camera glided a lot more during scenes of great emotion and sensuality and was static during scenes of formal occasions and brutality. Though, I’m not sure if that holds up when I describe a short sequence I really liked which was the dawn light breaking through the windows of the Guthrie farmhouse and spreading an orange glow across the walls and the furniture. It’s a sequence which is endemic of the pacing aswell. You do have to give yourself up to the slower rhythm of this film but it pays off. I do think it’s a major factor in why I was so emotional afterwards. The camera will stay on moments after the main action to take time with the characters. For instance, the scene early on when, in one locked-off shot, the father takes Chris’ rebellious brother Will (Jack Greenlees) into the barn for a beating, the punishment plays out and father leaves but we stay with Will as he slowly and painfully puts his shirt and coat back on. We need to see this so that we know that he will walk back into the house, head held high, dignity intact in spite of his father.

I genuinely can’t think of anything wrong with this. The performances are, across the board, brilliant – particularly Deyn, who you really believe in as a Scots farm girl when she’s actually a supermodel from England. Kevin Guthrie is immensely likeable as Ewan and Peter Mullan is reliably terrifying (and what a voice). Praise also, to the supporting cast such as Ian Pirie, Douglas Rankine and Daniela Nardini as Chris’ fraught mother, who does so much in the limited time her character has onscreen. The accents are thick, though, so tune your ears. This was one of those rare cases where I was aware that the film had been going for a long time and I didn’t want it to end.

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2 thoughts on “NZIFF ’16/01 – SUNSET SONG

  1. Pingback: NZIFF ’16/02 – HIGH-RISE | Reading Films

  2. Pingback: TOP TEN: 2015 | READING FILMS

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