FilmJuice have my review of Terence Davies’ intensely frustrating and disastrously miscast Sunset Song, a long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy of novels A Scots Quair.
The novel is set in early 20th Century Scotland where a psychotic patriarch decides to become a tenant farmer. Ill-equipped for the task, he drives his wife insane and his son to Argentina leaving him all alone with his sensitive daughter Chris who leaves him to die and takes over the farm only for her life, love, and relationships to be ruined by the outbreak of World War I.
In fairness to Davies, I can completely understand why he was drawn to the project as Chris is a fantastic viewpoint character who — despite possessing some agency — winds up being completely destroyed by the harsh beauty of the Scottish landscape. As the character points out in one of many monologues delivered to a screen of waving corn, the land endures when its human inhabitants do not. The problem with Davies adaptation is a failure to strike a balance between light and shade and a complete failure to condense three complex novels down to a three act structure that fits into just over two hours:
The shallowness of Davies’ adaptation is particularly evident when we enter the final act where Chris’ family comes under pressure from local villagers who are enraged by the group’s failure to support the war. The problem here is that, up until that point, Davies had barely acknowledged the existence of a world outside of Chris’ farm and so he is unable to communicate why a group of isolated farm workers would suddenly feel obliged to conform to the wishes of a community that appears to have had almost no impact on their lives.
There are some lovely moments; the compositions are striking, the photography is beautiful and when Davies does allow some sunlight to penetrate the gloom, there is real humanity too. The problem is that he’s cut so much out of the script that he winds up relying on the actors to form a connection with the audience and neither Peter Mullan nor Agyness Deyne are able to transcend the limitations that Davies’ adaptation has imposed upon them. A shame really.
It’s an adaptation of the first of the trilogy of novels, not of all three. Given how long Davies wanted to make this film, it was a particular disappointment for me. I read the novel two years ago knowing this film was finally being made.
I agree with you about the miscasting of Agyness Deyn (not “Deyne”.) The film certainly does look good, but then so it should, given that the exteriors were shot in 65mm, and it’s a pity that no 70mm prints were struck or I would have gone out of my way to see it in that format. (The interiors were shot digitally and despite what Davies and his DP say, the difference in resolution was quite obvious.)
There’s an admired six-part serial adaptation of the novel made by BBC Scotland in 1971, with Vivien Heilbron as Chris – admired by Davies too, as he saw it on its original broadcast. You’d think the BBC would put the serial out on DVD or at least BBC4 could have repeated it, with this new film being out, but no. The BBC also adapted the other two novels in the trilogy, Cloud Howe and Grey Granite in 1982 and 1983, with Heilbron reprising her role and all three adapted by Bill Craig. Davies’s film flopped (it did better in Scotland than it did in England, not surprisingly) so I doubt we’ll be getting new versions of Cloud Howe and Grey Granite any time soon.
Shame the mini-series isn’t available as I imagine it would be very good. There simply isn’t enough room to do those characters justice in Davies’ version.
Interesting about the use of different formats… I wonder if that doesn’t also account for the darkness of the interior scenes. I assumed that they’d gone for all-natural lighting but they could also have been trying to make the difference less obvious.
The adaptations of Scots Quair starring Viven Heilbron did justice to the books. I’d love to have copies of “Cloud Howe” and “Grey Granite”. You can get Sunset Song from the Grassic Gibbons Museum – phone them up and order – £20 and delivered next day.
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