She rises from the fields, acres of grain flowing as far as the eye can see, like a mythical creature. Innocent and pure. Unaware of anything but the beauty that surrounds her—that, indeed, seems to emanate from her. This is Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the heroine of Terence Davies’s exquisite Sunset Song, which the writer-director adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbons’s highly regarded 1932 novel of the same name. A staple of Scottish classrooms, the book details young Chris’s coming of age with her farming family in the fictional estate of Kinraddie circa the early 20th century. (It’s also the first part of a trilogy; the subsequent installments are 1933’s Cloud Howe and 1934’s Grey Granite.)
Davies has been planning his own version since helming his devastating take on Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth in 2000, and it’s clear, as the film unfolds over a leisurely yet gripping 135 minutes, that he’s incessantly thought over and lived with every moment. Such obsessiveness could, in the wrong hands, result in a fussy and lifeless work. Yet Davies never loses his grip on the core sense of searching rapture promised in that opening shot. He will live with this woman through all her glories and hardships. And we will too.
The Davies faithful will recognize plenty of the filmmaker’s frequent obsessions: a demonic patriarch (Peter Mullan); elliptical lap dissolves; dreamy musical interludes. This time, though, they’re wedded to a relatively straightforward narrative that follows Chris from enchanted girlhood to widowed womanhood. Don’t look here, in other words, for the full-bore impressionism of Davies movies like Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and his autobiographical documentary Of Time and the City. Sunset Song is much more conventionally A-to-B, though it’s a strangely freeing framework within which Davies achieves some gorgeously subtle effects.
Chief among these is the film’s sense of time. It’s easy to imagine a lesser version of Sunset Song that jumps from one melodramatic high point to another. Davies takes a more elastic approach, immersing us in several of Chris’s very specific highs and lows for what feels like placidly extended periods. The first third deals with Mullan’s devilish father, whose behavior slowly splits his family apart. The second concerns Chris’s idyllic courtship with and marriage to kindly local boy Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie). And the final section—the most powerful—chronicles the souring of the young lovers’ relationship after Ewan’s reluctant enlistment in the army during WWI.
Sunset Song is conventionally A-to-B, though it’s a strangely freeing framework within which Terence Davies achieves some gorgeously subtle effects.
There are no discreet boundaries between the three sections. Elements of one may trickle into another, as surely as one of Davies and cinematographer Michael McDonough’s luxuriant circular pans will chart the passage of seasons. (The film was photographed on a combination of 65mm celluloid and digital cameras.) Chris’s sexual awakening is sketched through two separate, yet equally evocative shots, one in which she quizzically stares at her naked body in the mirror (her figure is then stunningly superimposed over a burning field), the other in which a lecherous lodger sleeping in the barn caresses her legs after she brings him dinner. Her wedding day, meanwhile, is an unabashedly joyous affair that contains one of Davies’s greatest passages—a group singalong that, with the aid of a slow dissolve, transitions to Chris and Ewan sitting alone and expectant. (The final moment, in which they blow out the candles and exit into the snowy night, is sublime beyond words.)
For all the tenderness on display, however, and despite Davies’s choice to restrict the film, with one potent exception, to the family home and its nearby environs, Kinraddie is no Eden. The story’s darker sections make it clear that even the most picturesque locations can be spoiled and the most hopeful people dashed to pieces by cruelty and indifference. One of the overarching themes of the story is Chris’s stalwart defiance in the face of patriarchy, first in the form of her father, who at his lowest point threatens her with incestuous rape, then in the debasement of Ewan by a nation that privileges warmongering displays of courage over conscience and genuine humanity.
It’s tremendously upsetting when Ewan returns home from the trenches on furlough because Davies, in an incisive elision, gives us no context for his battle experience other than what Chris observes and is exposed to. The kind-hearted man we’ve lived with for much of the movie is suddenly a demanding tyrant who violently lashes out at the woman he formerly cherished. It’s a pointed distillation of the ruinous nature of war: For all intents and purposes Ewan is another person.
Deyn, exceptional throughout, is especially terrific in these later scenes. Like the movie she inhabits, her performance accumulates in power and emotional force. The more life scars and challenges Chris, the more her determination to survive the worst—and the best—of her existence becomes rigid and set in stone. When she turns a knife on Ewan after he tries to hit her, you can see the seeds of the unhappy old maid that, given her tortured family history, she’s likely to become. There’s only so far one woman can go in this turn-of-the-century context, and it’s actually through a sacrifice made by Ewan that Chris maintains her resolve to be better than the society that would otherwise keep her in check. This final melodramatic flourish could have easily been botched, but in Davies’s precise, all-embracing hands it becomes a most beautiful display of shared mercy and grace.
I’ve comparatively less to say about Hungarian filmmaker Lászlo Nemes’s impressively made, yet terribly monotonous Son of Saul, which took the Grand Prize of the Jury and won the approval of Shoah director Claude Lanzmann at this year’s Cannes. Nemes, a former assistant director for Béla Tarr who co-wrote the script with Clara Royer, makes every one of his points in a powerful pre-credits sequence—filmed in a single take—that introduces us to the title character (Géza Röhrig, all haunted visage). Saul is a Sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner assigned by the Nazis to clean up the Auschwitz-Birkenau gas chamber after each use. With rare exception, the camera keeps close to his shell-shocked perspective. Typically, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély films Röhrig either from behind or in tight close-up, the edges of the frame blurred so as to suggest a blinkered peripheral (and ethical) vision. Survive at all costs, though the world burns.
It’s a brilliant conceit at five minutes, and a monotonous one at the 107 that the film runs. What drama there is comes from Saul’s determination to find a rabbi to bury one of the young victims of a recent gassing—a boy the protagonist is convinced is his own son. Yet all that is secondary to the horrifying sounds and images that Nemes conjures with showy grandiosity. (In the most technically bravura sequence, Saul searches for his hoped-for holy man among some freshly arrived truckloads of Jews who are systematically stripped, shot through the head, and tossed into a flaming grave.) The technique continually impresses even as the moral perspective of the enterprise is ultimately squelched by all the aural-visual gimmickry. This descent into genocidal hell might better be titled Holocaust: The Ride.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 10—20.