‘Sunset Song’ plays as dreary as a Scottish bog
Coming of age in bonny Scotland turns out to be every bit as tough, hard and remorseless as coming of age anywhere else, especially with a despotic father and a world war going on, and the only visible light coming from the artfully lit fireplace and some artfully lit candles.
This is not the Scotland of stirring bagpipes at the Edinburgh Festival. This is the Scotland of mud, sheep, schoolmarms, dark smelly barns and foulmouthed menfolk who run the farmhouse with an iron fist and a shotgun.
And as soon as things start looking up for the sweet-faced, bighearted heroine, along comes Kaiser Wilhelm.
Director Terence Davies’ film “Sunset Song,” playing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at 1 p.m. Monday, is yet another adaptation of the grim 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. It stars the remarkable Agyness Deyn, a former fashion model perhaps best known for her portrayal of Aphrodite in “Clash of the Titans.” Instead of playing a goddess of sex and love, this time she gets to discover it for herself, with wonder and exhilaration, when she isn’t milking the cows, taking her exams, coming and going and coming again through the rye - and comforting her big brother, who keeps getting beat up by their domineering, dysfunctional old man.
It’s an intense, brooding two hours, beautiful to look at, powerfully performed and as cheery as a Scottish bog full of bovine bleating.
Deyn plays Chris Guthrie, a devoted lass who abandons her idea of becoming a schoolteacher in order to take over the family farm in northeast Scotland. Along the way, she must cope with her nasty father, John (Peter Mullan), whose primary function is to administer corporal punishment to brother Will (Jack Greenlees). Director Davies is so passionate about one whipping that, although the father only strikes his son seven times, somehow when Chris is nursing him back to health there are a dozen lash marks on his back. Scotland must be one tough place.
There also is parental rape, spousal rape, incest, suicide, child homicide, death by firing squad and husbands who won’t clean up after themselves.
At moments of greatest stress, the main characters cope by sitting silently in the dark living room of the farmhouse, illuminated only by the fireplace, an oil lamp or a candle. This happens over and over, with the only sound being the ticking of the wind-up clock. It must be that time passes when you come of age. After the first dozen candles and hundred ticks, the audience gets the idea. Open the window, Terence.
Deyn, surrounded by catastrophe at every turn, is almost too sympathetic. She is adoring, doe-eyed, even-tempered and hopelessly well adjusted. Her happy marriage to sweetie Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), which lasts for a few minutes of screen time, quickly evaporates into screaming childbirth, screeching abuse and sobbing after the (inevitable) arrival of the bad-news wartime telegram, delivered by a bloke on a bicycle whom the audience can see coming from across the Channel.
For a movie with so much sitting around, bad things happen awfully fast, with a narrator who keeps butting in to explain it all. Brother Will, who halfway through the movie lights out for Argentina, could be on to something.
Maybe life can be as hard as “Sunset Song” makes it out to be. It’s an absorbing, finely composed, fretful film. But when it’s over, there is as much relief for the filmgoer as appreciation for the filmmaker’s art. By then, not even a final wisp of soulful Scottish bagpiping - the sunset song of the title - can do much to make anybody feel better.