Sunday, May 15, 2016

Review: Sunset Song

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Determinedly old school in style and pace and both intimate and epic in nature, Terence Davies' "Sunset Song" is a gorgeous - both visually and for its central performance - and somber tale of a young woman's education via the school of hard knocks at the dawn of World War I.

Davies's films - whose works include the elegiac pair of World War II and post-war dramas "Distant Voices, Still Lives" and "The Long Day Closes" as well as the acclaimed "The House of Mirth" and "The Deep Blue Sea" - are often compared to those of Terrence Malick in that they are frequently period pieces that rely more on imagery than story and have a dreamlike quality to them.

His latest, "Sunset Song," is just as visually stunning as his previous works, but it's a surprising departure in that it's an intimate character piece featuring a dazzling lead performance by Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie, the brave heroine of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel of the same name. The term "star-making performance" gets thrown around a lot, but if Deyn's work here doesn't lead to her becoming a household name, then I don't know what would.

Chris lives on a secluded Scottish farm with her family in the years leading up to World War I. Her father, played by a fierce Peter Mullan, is a hard man who rules with an iron fist, impregnating Chris's mother again and again against her will and doling out vicious beatings on Chris's older brother. After her brother departs for a better life and several tragedies strike, Chris finds herself attempting to hold down the farm on her own.

Her neighbors - mostly men - take an interest in seeing that Chris succeed and just when we think that their intentions aren't all above-board, we find ourselves surprised at the goodness of others. Chris eventually takes in an older woman who helps with work on the farm and finds herself in a budding romance with Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), an acquaintance of her brother. They eventually marry and life appears to be on the up and up, that is, until World War I intrudes and despite Chris's pleas for Ewan not to enlist, his fellow townsmen throwing rocks through his window and calling him a coward eventually win the day.

I don't want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Ewan returns from his first tour of duty and Chris finds herself with new challenges. Although the supporting work from the film's cast - especially Mullan and Guthrie - is very good, the film is carried on the shoulders of Deyn, whose performance recalls great film heroines of the past that could have been played by Olivia de Havilland or Ingrid Bergman.

"Sunset Song" moves at its own pace and is old fashioned in style and storytelling, although it occasionally takes us to darker and more harrowing places than you might expect from a picture of this type. Davies' work frequently focuses on the first half of the 20th century and provides detailed views of how lives were led during the World War years in England and, in "Sunset Song," Scotland. His movies capture the lives of people in those eras from the songs they sing to the manners in which they gather round a table to have a meal.

"Sunset Song," much like Davies' best films, feels lived in. And Deyn fully embodies the character of Chris Guthrie, resulting in one of the year's most memorable characters and performances. For moviegoers with the patience for a slowly paced - but visually and narratively captivating - film, I can't recommend this one highly enough.

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