September 13, 2016
“The June moors whispered and rustled and shook their cloaks, yellow with broom and powdered faintly with purple – that was the heather but not the full passion of its colour yet … and maybe the wind would veer there in an hour or so and you’d feel the change in the life and strum of the thing, bringing a streaming coolness out of the sea”. – Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)
Chris Guthrie, the young protagonist of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel of rural Scottish life Sunset Song, is introduced as part of the landscape, an adornment to the hinterlands of Aberdeen. Her family suffers mightily, with an abusive father, a depressed mother, and the coming of WWI, but Chris always remains loyal to the land which bore her. Terence Davies’ 2015 film adaptation, now available on DVD and VOD in the U.S., is an elegiac heartbreaker which presents Chris as an iron-willed witness to the end of Scotland’s pre-industrial way of life. Played by model Agyness Deyn with stiff-backed reserve, Chris remains fiercely loyal to her conservative town despite the continued thwarting of her artistic ambitions – she is an enigma, and her mystical devotion to home is something that Davies dares not try to explain. She has absorbed an entire country’s worth of tragedies, but carries on anyway, as Davies’ camera floats around her, keeping her mystery intact.
Sunset Song was voted “The Best Scottish Book of All Time” by a poll conducted by the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2005. It is as central to Scottish culture as Tom Sawyer is to the U.S. It had been adapted for television by BBC Scotland in 1971, but this was the first attempt to bring it to the movies. In his adapted screenplay Davies maintains the dense Scottish-English used in the book, and I found it helpful to view with the subtitles on (I learned that “bairn” means “child”, and it is now my new favorite word). The film condenses the book down, but retains the essentials: it follows the path of the Guthrie family in the fictional town of Kinraddie on their estate of Blawearie. The father John (played with fearsome intensity by Peter Mullan), is a taskmaster who treats his wife and children as hired help. The mother Jean (Daniela Nardini) has already borne three sons and Chris, but is now pregnant with twins. Chris is closest to her older brother Will (Jack Greenlees), who bears the brunt of their dad’s rage. The family unit implodes, leaving Chris alone at Blawearie, where she can begin to live for herself. So she flirts with and marries Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), a cute friend of Will’s who is guilted into joining the fight in WWI. When Chris has finally recovered from her family’s traumas, the world provides her with another.
Davies frames characters in theatrical tableau, and they can shift tones dramatically from scene-to-scene, as if they have become entirely new people. The father is introduced as a avuncular sort, smoking a pipe and praising Chris’ reading of a poem. In the next he is a brutal sadist whipping Will with a belt for a minor infraction. Ewan goes from a tender, sensitive soul on his wedding night to a snarling animal when he returns from the front on leave. As one of the voice-overs states, people are changeable, while the land is constant. This is a lesson Chris seems to have learned early on, since she takes these monstrous transformations in stride, almost as if she was viewing them from a distance, as performers on a stage slipping on a different costume. Chris is there and not-there, hiding her true self somewhere deep underneath her lacy undergarments. Agyness Deyn is remarkable at portraying this withholding, using her modeling skills to turn her long Modigliani face into an impenetrable mask, suggesting much more than she shows.
The joyful highlight of the film is the wedding between Chris and Ewan, which allows the entire town of Kinraddie an opportunity to breathe. The film loosens along with them, lingering over the couple’s caresses and mutual regard. It is a wedding rushed into, as Ewan proposes soon after their first kiss, but both are desperate for happiness, or the illusion of such, and they pull all of their neighbors into that cocoon. The privileged moment of the entire film is after the exchange of vows and the kiss that makes their bond official. Ewan and Chris look slightly away from each other and exhale, smiles creeping at the edges of their mouths. It is a massive release of stress, of fear, and a momentary acceptance of joy. It lasts no more than a few seconds, but it provided me with an intense sense memory of my own wedding, also joined into with speed, of the intense relief that the whole thing was over, and that the true joy of marriage could begin – being fully present once again with one’s beloved.
The highlights of any Davies film tend to be musical in nature, as he is a master of utilizing songs to establish mood, center locations, and isolate emotions. At the wedding, Chris sings an acapella version of the Scottish folk tune “Flowers of the Forest”, a mournful tune “commemorating the defeat of the Scottish army of James IV at the Battle of Flodden in September 1513″, per the fine folks at Wikipedia. In Chris’ steady, serious voice, it is both a memorial to lives lost but also to a country lost, as her precious Blawearie will never be the same after WWI will soon rob the town of its young men. She sings, “Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning/The Flowers of the Forest are a wede away.” To translate: “Sighing and moaning on every green lane/The Flowers of the Forest are withered away.” Davies starts on a long shot of the villagers standing stock still around her, as if in a theater in the round. Chris is seated in the center, with Ewan to the right. Davies and his DP Michael McDonough push the camera in slowly, then dissolve from a long shot to a medium as she starts the “Sighing” verse. Now only Chris and Ewan are visible – this group memorial has now become private – and as she reaches the closing lines, she looks to Ewan with love and affection. It is as if Chris already knew that Ewan would wither away in the war, so she honored his memory while he was still in the room, before the land took him back and left her alone with the moors and the heather and the streaming coolness of the sea once again.