“There are lovely things in the world. Lovely that don’t endure and the lovelier for that.” The line is uttered more than once in Sunset Song, a unique sort of period drama that is both romantic yet earthy. To see the loveliness in anything is also to recognize that it can never last. British director Terence Davies has crafted a beautiful film about permanent impermanence shown through family, love and war during turn-of-the-20th-century rural Scotland.
Model turned actress Agyness Deyn gives an enchanting performance as Chris Guthrie, a well-studied daughter of a devout but abusive farmer (Peter Mullan). Tired of the abuse, her eldest brother (Jack Greenlees) runs off while her mother (Daniela Nardini) takes a more grim route out of the relationship. Then, when her father passes away, it’s up to Chris to maintain the farm, setting aside aspirations to become a teacher. Chris is a sacrificial creature seeking a sense of self in the face of many losses (with many more to come). Things bloom beautiful and then they rot, yet she rises heroic — a strong, lovely woman that is sure to be one the most memorable characters Davies has ever conjured.
As he did with Deep Blue Sea (‘Deep Blue Sea’ transcends traditional storytelling to evoke tangles of love), this great British director pushes any expectations you might have about a period piece to cut to the bone of humanity and a sort of eternal truth that defies any era. Based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song could have easily dipped and stagnated in melodrama, but Davies, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, finds a moving balance between personal tragedies and a confrontation with cruel, earthy fate for human moments of transcendentalism, be it something as big as a decision to marry or something as simple as a song. Meanwhile, he never skimps on beautiful imagery and language, including a couple of musical moments grounded in the era.
Some may protest the distributor’s decision to add subtitles to the film even though it is in English. But this critic saw it at an early stage, without subtitles, during Miami Dade College’s 33rd Miami International Film Festival and noticed firsthand how the Scottish brogue of some of the actors wasn’t always easy to understand. Also, thanks to the subtitles, viewers will notice more of the nuance in the dialogue. But, above it all, Davies commits himself gloriously to a language that breaks through his indelible imagery.
For those familiar with his movies, Davies has always been a strong visual director. There’s no denying the strength of his latest film’s imagery coupled with a supreme sensitivity to story, character development and an honest respect for life and embracing it for all its disappointments and those unexpected moments of transcendence. Even without its pedigree, Sunset Song is a beautiful movie on all levels of cinematic storytelling and will stand as one of the year’s best movies, without a doubt.
Sunset Song runs 135 minutes, is in Scottish English with English subtitles and is rated R. It opens May 27 at The Bill Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film had its Florida premiere at the Miami International Film Festival back in March, where we first caught this film as guests of the festival. You can read our early reaction here. For screening dates in other cities, visit this link. All images courtesy Magnolia Pictures.