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Christmas-time is the season to be jolly, so we see a slew of Christmas-themed seasonal offerings in the cinema. The end of the year though, is also the time that we see the appearance of earnest and serious films. These films are put out to showcase the very best talent in the film industry, working at the top of their game. Thus these films are worthy efforts, designed not to entertain so much, as to educate and inform, as well as being products of high art. Sunset Song is one such film. It is a world away from the the glitzy glamor of Hollywood and the big cities, it is a century away from the present day, a rural story of a bygone era.
Sunset Song is a film set in Scotland, based on the popular book of the same name. This beautifully filmed movie depicts the harsh reality of life and death for tenant-farmers in the early years of the twentieth century. The lives of these farmers are governed by the land and the unrelenting struggle to endure through the seasons, as well as by patriarchy and religion. Life is hard for Chris Guthrie, the heroine of the story, and this adult-themed film does not shy away from nudity and sex, nor from mental, physical, and sexual abuse. Even giving birth is not the easy act of the traditional rom-com, but rather a major physical ordeal. The climate is often harsh, but the beauty of the land is also shown too. In amongst the mud, is also a rural Scottish culture, perhaps now gone, captured perfectly in the book, and now transfered faithfully into film.
The film opens with a young Chris Guthrie still at school. She is gawky and bookish. Nowadays she would be described as nerdy or a geek. However, she also lives on the land too, so her life, like the rest of that of her family, is governed by the needs of the land. Chris Guthrie is played by the Manchester-born actress Agyness Deyn, previously in Pusher, who gives a convincingly authentic performance, both in accent and actions, as the girl growing into womanhood.
Miss Deyn has a strong supporting cast playing alongside her. Peterhead-born Peter Mullan, and Aberdeen-born Ian Pirie, both give strong performances. Kevin Guthrie has the hard task of playing a shy young man, who aspires to go courting, then grows into maturity. Mr Guthrie, and Miss Deny too, play characters that have to adapt to changing circumstances, and both thespians portray their characters authentically as they adapt to changing situations. Jack Greenlees and Douglas Rankine too, give fine performances in their supporting roles. All actors should be applauded for their dedication to their craft, which required them to persevere during difficult filming scenes.
Another star of the film is Scotland itself, both the climate, and the landscape. Scotland’s climate is both changeable and harsh, and this is shown in various scenes. A transport-moving scene captures well that Scottish phenomenon of ‘horizontal rain’ and the Scottish Summer is also shown too. The landscape is shown off well, though a very few scenes have blurring as the camera sweeps across the landscape, the only fault in an otherwise perfect piece of filming. One standout scene is that of a New Year celebration. Preparation for this is shown in loving detail, as is the event itself. These country-folk are used to doing things for themselves, and this is shown well in the extended scene. As the music plays, we seem to be viewing a moment in time, captured, before it dies. The effect is heightened by the correct decision to have an absence of background music in most of the film, thus giving us the impression of watching a documentary. Another standout scene is one showing attendance at a church Sunday-service. Again, the scene is shown documentary-style, to show how important the church was then to the whole community. Sometimes, it is the briefest of shots, that tell us the most, such as the shot of new farm-machinery, ushering in increased mechanization on the land.
Terence Davies, who has done such a fine job as director of the film Sunset Song, also wrote the screenplay too. The novel of the same name was written by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. The book itself is broken into parts labeled ‘Ploughing’, ‘Drilling’, Seed-Time’, and ‘Harvest’. It is the first-part of a trilogy called A Scots Quair. The writing, which incorporates Scots in with the English, has a female character, so convincing, that it was originally thought that Lewis Grassic Gibbon was the pen-name of a woman. It is in fact, the pen-name of James Leslie Mitchell, who used his own mother’s name. He himself had been born in Arbuthnott, a tiny settlement in farming country, in north-east Scotland, midway between Aberdeen and Montrose. In real-life, just as in the novel’s fictional setting, this is placed between Lawrencekirk and Stonehaven. Born in 1901, he served in the Armed Forces for six years before living in Welwyn Garden City in the south of England. His literary output was between 1928 and 1934, thus he wrote as an exile, but with knowledge, of an era that had already past. He died in 1935, six days short of his 34th birthday. In 2005, Sunset Song was voted by the public as the ‘Best Scottish Book of All Time’.
Sunset Song is a film that deals with heavy subjects, however it is also a beautifully filmed and evocative movie. It tells the story of a life, and a people, who now live on only as captured memories. As such it is one of the finest acts of film-making.