Arts Review, Movies

Sunset Song

Sunset Song featured image

Sunset Song

Terence Davies, director & script based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Starring: Agyness Deyn (Chris Guthrie), Peter Mullan (John Guthrie), Kevin Guthrie (Ewan Tavendale), Jack Greenless (Will Guthrie), Daniela Nardini (Jean Guthrie), Ian Pirie (Chae Strachan), Douglas Rankine (Long Rob)

Let’s cut to the chase. Terence Davies is one of the finest film directors in the world; arguably the greatest auteur in England now. His gorgeously shot evocation of life in Scotland a century ago, Sunset Song, is hanging on for a second week at one downtown Carleton Cinema. You should see it—and bring a friend. Films made in 65mm aren’t intended to be experienced on TV. If you love cinema, join me in making a fuss over this remarkable film.


Terence Davies is one of the great Romantics of cinema. He loves the pure power of the visual in a way that few directors do anymore.  Throughout Sunset Song, cameraman Michael McDonough circles around, tracks in and, most beautifully, pulls back to dramatise scenes in which Davies’ characters, the Guthries, struggle to make a crumbling world seem safe for a few final moments.

Sunset Song opens with a tracking shot of a wheat field in Scotland. Suddenly, a bonnie lass (as the Scots would have said called her) pulls up from the earth where she’d been lying to look at the land around her. The young woman is Chris Guthrie, a bright student who loves literature but is equally drawn to the animals and crops in the farm where she’s grown up.

We soon realise that Chris’ life is not an easy one. John, the patriarch, is a tough man, who whips his son Will, for the smallest transgression and treats Jean, his wife, as a servant, who must submit to his desires. After Jean gives birth to twins, the Guthries find a bigger farm and Chris meets Ewan, a quiet local lad who becomes one of Will’s friends. Viewers with a taste for melodrama will quickly take to a complicated plot told well.

Sunset Song
is a Scottish classic novel written in 1932 by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. When it was broadcast as a highly acclaimed TV adaptation (shown on Masterpiece Theater in North America) back in the Seventies, one of the series’ biggest fans was a young Terence Davies.  Gibbon’s novel, the first of a trilogy called A Scot’s Quair, uses modernist techniques—stream of consciousness, local dialect, short intense dialogues—but it is, in its heart, a continuation of the works of Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. There’s a love of the land, and an intense relationship between the ground and the wind and the rain and women—in this case, Chris Guthrie. Commingling with the enjoyment of Mother Earth is a radical appreciation of the sexuality of women.

Terence Davies takes the best from Gibbon—the land, the woman, the careening late Victorian plot devices—and weaves a magical movie from its narrative threads. Sunset Song wouldn’t work without its main actors: Peter Mullan and Agyness Deyn. Lovers of contemporary British drama will know the fierce, scene stealing Mullan, who has dominated such films as My Name is Joe (for which he won best actor at Cannes), The Magdalene Sisters and Tyronnasaur. But Deyn is a newcomer, a former super model, who has become an affectless, natural actor. With Deyn as Chris and Mullan as her terrifying yet tragic father, the film is dramatically successful.

Sunset Song has many elements in its more than two hours on the screen–suicide, rape and an execution among them. Davies brings in all the elements from a tough novel and adds a love of the past, of traditions and of the land.

This is a film worth celebrating. See Sunset Song.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Good Day GTA.

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