I suppose it would be fair to cast Davies primarily as a director of period pieces. But tonally his work is equally distinct from stagy TV costume-dramas as from the modern, ‘revisionist’ approach of the recent high-profile literary adaptations of Jane Eyre and Far From the Madding Crowd. Yet it’s hard not to relate Sunset Song back to these well-received films, as it too is based on a classic novel in a rural setting, featuring a central female character attempting to assert her independence in a restrictive social environment.
It’s a character arc that’s now starting to seem rather familiar, but it’s satisfying to see this done in Davies’ unmistakable style: the unostentatious period detail, the significance of communal singing at moments of union and parting, the light and shadows of domestic interiors. The story follows Chris Guthrie, the eldest daughter in a Scottish farming family in the early 1900s, whose deep connection with the village and the land is hard-won, and staunchly defended through years of endurance across the social chasm opened by the outbreak of the Great War.
Peter Mullan is typically frightening as her violent and controlling father, dominating the frame as intensely as his character dominates the family. But after his death Agyness Deyn’s Chris emerges instantly with a spark and independence that carries the rest of the film with ease. Mullan is certainly the go-to actor for this kind of role, almost to the point of predictability now, but as the sombre tone is spelled out wordlessly on his grizzled brow, the first act is carried in his reliable hands. It’s a firm foundation for Agyness Deyn to show what she can do. Nobody expects outstanding performances from models-turned-actors – in fact many would be snarky enough to quietly enjoy their failure – but Deyn’s performance here should silence such scepticism. She’s just excellent in Sunset Song, and clearly committed to trusting the director’s eye and his respect for the source novel.
The film’s key scenes take place in the kitchen at Blawearie, the Guthrie family home, and the changes from within and without are dramatised there in uncomplicated dialogue and small gestures. The threat of domestic violence recurs upon Chris, and Davies’ lower-class and pacifist sympathies ensure this is attributed to the brutalising effects of war upon formerly kind and peaceful citizens. This time around, Chris brandishes a knife and affirms her refusal to be afraid in her own home. This moment is not cinematically ‘enhanced’, made excessively tense or thrilling, by close-ups or uncharacteristically rapid editing. In fact the incident is quickly smothered, but its deep significance derives from its setting: this same kitchen, the scene of her father’s constant repression of her mother and brother, is now her domain, earned by her persistence and self-knowledge.
Sunset Song’s narrative breaks down a little towards the conclusion. I felt that its visual representations of the war in France should either have been pushed further or excised entirely: it’s the only moment I began to think of budget constraints instead of character and visual storytelling. But there’s still plenty to recommend here for fans of the director as well as wider audiences who aren’t deterred by something slightly (if not entirely) old-fashioned. The film’s single most affecting sequence is pure Davies: the villagers walking across wheatfields towards the church on a Sunday morning, soundtracked by a solemn choir. The sermon quickly turns to fiery patriotism in the face of the war’s outbreak, with twisted religiosity serving an incitement to violence and social division. But at its best, Sunset Song offers a sincere convivial warmth for the viewer to sink into, admitting hope and strength, and allowing happiness and calm to linger, as well as sadness.