Sunset Song isn’t as “in your face” despairing as something like the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” For comparison, it features 100% subplots solely dedicated characters being mercilessly tortured through genital mutilation. That said, it belongs to the same ilk of soul-crushing dramas. I’m not masochistic enough to risk a second viewing of director Terence Davies’ adaptation of the 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. However, Sunset Song is good enough to warrant one.
Set in pastoral Scotland during the early-20th century, Sunset Song introduces teenage Christine (Agyness Deyn) shortly before her mother commits murder-suicide with newborn twins. After Christine’s brothers leave the family farm, she’s trapped with an abusive father (a perfectly repulsive performance by Peter Mullan). He’s so dead-set on an incestuous relationship that even a severe stroke doesn’t leave him quite immobile enough to stop from crawling out of bed to attempt raping her. Eventually, Christine’s father dies and she assumes control of the farm…and that’s just the gleeful set-up!
By the time Christine sees glimmers of hope in a kind-hearted new husband, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), World War One breaks out, and we realize that Sunset Song isn’t content with just ripping your heart out, but insists on kicking it around in front of you, too. Although the film’s cinematography is bright and beautiful, I’m not sure that scenes of hideous sexism and spousal rape should look pretty. It’s only a matter of time before the gorgeous visuals of Scottish countryside and Christine’s anguish reveal the film’s biggest flaw.
Sunset Song isn’t sure whether it’s a coming-of-age story about a young woman…or an entire country. Scotland itself serves as a co-lead to Christine, and the culture grappling with industrialization never jives with her personal journey toward empowerment. Major leaps forward for Christine are interrupted by big changes happening in the nation around her and, eventually, the back-and-forth becomes a bit frustrating. A lot of that frustration arises because Deyn is a pretty much a gift to the world, and all focus needs to be on her.
Skimming reviews for Sunset Song, there’s a tinge of resentment that the supermodel-turned-actress is one of the best performers in her age group. Even in favorable reviews, several critics (mostly critics with penises) have commented that Deyn’s good looks are “distracting,” failing to see the irony in their sexist comments about a film that condemns sexism. Deyn essentially carries the entire film, switching between virtually indecipherable subtly and straight-up melodrama at a moments notice and never—seriously, not once—missing a beat.
Keep in mind that Deyn steals the show while opposite an actor who usually steals the show in other films. She’s mostly the reason why a film this depressing is also accessible, because her performance is so engrossing that it’s difficult not to be fascinated by her every movement and mannerism…unless you’re really trying not to be. If you’ve read my reviews of coming-of-age stories and costume-dramas, then you know that I despise coming-of-age stories and costume-dramas. It’s a pretty big deal that I really like a film that features both, and a testament to the talent of the lead actress who sells it.
Grade = A-