Sunday, May 29, 2016

Chimes at Midnight (Campanadas a Medianoche)

Orson Welles waiting on the set

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (Campanadas a Medianoche)                 A                    
aka:  Falstaff
France  Spain  Switzerland  (119 mi)  1966  d:  Orson Welles

There live not three good men unhanged in England;
And one of them is fat and grows old.
Falstaff, from Act II, Henry IV Part 1

Welles’s quintessential work, a consolidation of 5 Shakespearian plays, including all references to Falstaff, Welles’s favorite literary character, from Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V, Richard II, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, all somehow held together by narrated excerpts from Holinshed’s Chronicles, a comprehensive description of British history that was first published in 1577.  If ever there were a character Orson Welles was born to play, it is Shakespeare’s big, bold and bawdy rogue, Falstaff, a lover of wine, women, and song (“Come, sing me a bawdy song!”), also of spinning yarns of such exaggerated proportions into spontaneous works of art, while he was a jolly, fat old man, “a fool and a jester,” with a wit and gargantuan spirit that all but overshadowed his true cowardice.  He was the Prince of Wales’s drinking companion in bawdy houses until the prince would become a king, at which time Falstaff was banished from the kingdom, causing him to die of heartbreak right there on the spot.  His love interest was played by none other than Jeanne Moreau.  Chimes is notable for its famous Battle of Shrewsbury sequence, which combines extraordinary realism with humor, as Falstaff himself is hiding behind trees or wandering aimlessly alone in the middle of the battlefield which lays strewn with corpses, all the while taking credit for the dead, also for the beauty of its language, allowing John Gielgud as King Henry IV to rival Welles’s Falstaff for legendary monologues, also for a truly remarkable Mistress Quickly, the innkeeper, by Dame Margaret Rutherford, who despite being the butt of all his jokes, loves Falstaff as a kind of human wonderment, dazzled by his every living breath.  The film’s flaws, especially the poor sound synchronization, due to lack of funds, are among the worst ever experienced and remain intact even after a digital restoration (though archivists are at work in a full preservation and 4K restoration that could take years), and while irritatingly noticeable throughout, are overcome by the breadth of this film’s achievements, which finds Welles most at ease in any of his roles, by the extraordinary mix of sound and music with spectacular sets, superb imagery, and by the magnificence of the actor’s command of the language.  At times hilarious, breathtaking, and heartbreaking, it’s ultimately a tragic work that is one of the least seen in the Welles repertoire due to copyright issues and the shoddy quality of the prints available through the years.  However, it belongs in the pantheon as one of cinema’s crowning achievements.  

While Welles was fascinated by Shakespeare from an early age, playing Richard III in his own three and a half hour production of an amalgam of Shakespeare’s historical plays in high school, calling it The Winter of Our Discontent, playing Tybalt in a Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet at age 19, and he was hailed as a theatrical prodigy at the age of 20 with his all-black production of Macbeth in Harlem, which became known as Voodoo Macbeth, while at the same time adapting and performing Hamlet on CBS Radio’s Columbia Workshop, yet at age 22 he also directed, starred and produced his own adaptation of Julius Caesar that broke all Broadway performance records for the play.  At 23 his career was jump-started by the panic, controversy, and overall hysteria generated from his infamous Mercury Theatre radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, where many listeners mistook the theatrics of radio theater for a real live alien invasion taking place in their midst, but the extent of the widespread panic was largely fabricated or greatly exaggerated, either way confirming his celebrity status.  By the time he was 25, he produced a Broadway stage adaptation of nine Shakespeare plays called Five Kings, though it was something of a flop, where according to the Welles biographer Charles Highman, Five Kings | Orson Welles, Welles was drinking heavily while also balancing his sexual exploits, opening without ever successfully completing a dress rehearsal.  As might be expected, the play was “long and unwieldy,” with Welles insisting upon two intermissions, so the three and a half hour play didn’t end until 1 am, well past the endurable limits of most patrons.  More than two decades later in 1960, Welles revived this play in Ireland, where it was his final onstage performance.  Playing Falstaff was not only his lifelong ambition (among so many other projects), so was turning this play into a film, writing an extraordinary screenplay, something of a major achievement by itself, taking sixteen hours of stage time and turning it into two hours of cinema, radically reinterpreting the source material by altering the time lines, shortening the scenes, and restructuring the plays, borrowing lines from different plays and placing them side by side, offering an entirely different context by thoroughly examining the plays through the perspective of a secondary character, Sir John “Jack” Falstaff, creating what is essentially a new story, one that is similar yet never existed in the annals of Shakespeare.  While struggling to get financing for the film, which was made for about $800,000, he lied to Spanish producer Emiliano Piedra, claiming they were instead shooting Robert Louis Stevenson’s action adventure Treasure Island in various Spanish locations throughout Spain in 1964-65, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966, where a jury led by Sophia Loren awarded a shared Grand Prize to Pietro Germi’s Italian sex comedy SIGNORE & SIGNORI and Claude Lelouche’s lushly photographed romance A MAN AND A WOMAN, handing Welles’s film two awards, a 20th Anniversary Prize and a Technical Grand Prize. 

Shallow:  Jesus, the days that we have seen.  Ha, Sir John?  Said I well? 

Falstaff:  We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Robert Shallow.

Shallow:  That we have, that we have, that we have.  In faith, Sir John, we have.  Jesus, the days we have seen. 

With this opening prelude, Falstaff (Orson Welles) and his friend Justice Shallow (the high pitched voice of Alan Webb) make their way through a snowy landscape, arriving at the Boar’s Head Tavern where they warm themselves to a glowing fire and recount the tales of their lives (a scene that repeats itself later in the film, chatting about friends who are old or dead), leading into an unforgettable title sequence, with returning foot soldiers solemnly making their way back from distant battlefields in a long disheveled line, given an especially austere look, with an ill wind blowing the helmet off one soldier, revealing a chilling image of soldiers staring straight at the camera, bending over and laying down their weapons, while behind them hanged men dangle in the background on scaffolds built especially for the occasion.  This searing image speaks volumes, as public hangings are a cold reminder of the harsh consequences of the law under King Henry IV, where England is a police state ruled by terror, sending the military into foreign lands to levy justice, while quelling any unrest by summary executions.  Following the image of a towering castle, a narrator, none other than Sir Ralph Richardson (who was himself a legend at playing Falstaff onstage), concisely summarizes how we got to this point using Holinshed’s Chronicles, explaining Henry IV is a usurper who seized the throne, succeeding the reign of Richard II, who was murdered in the year 1400, while Richard’s rightful heir to the throne, Edmund Mortimer, was kidnapped and remains imprisoned by Welsh rebels.  Seeking immediate remedy, Mortimer’s cousins, Northumberland (José Nieto), Northumberland’s son Henry Percy, also known as Hotspur (Norman Rodway), and Worcester (Fernando Rey) call upon the king to have Mortimer released, where only Hotspur dares to raise his voice to King Henry IV (John Gielgud), seen sitting high atop the throne a good twenty feet above his subjects, with soldiers lining the walls in a cavernous, stone cathedral-like setting with light streaming through the windows illuminating the king, but they are instead callously turned away.  In anger at their rebuke, the three embark upon a plot to overthrow the king.  Given the circumstances described by the narrator, the viewer is quick to mistrust the actions of the king, placing a heavy burden of doubt on the legitimacy of Henry’s rule, setting the tone by providing a moral vacuum for everything that follows.  Who better to fill that void than Falstaff, who is quickly seen entertaining the drunken rabble at Boar’s Head, where the King’s son, Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), heir to the throne, spends his time under Falstaff’s patriarchal tutelage carousing with prostitutes, petty thieves, beggars, and other ne’er do wells, much to the dismay of the king. 

The Life Of William Shakespeare: The Classic Unabridged ...  Sidney Lee on The Life Of William Shakespeare: The Classic Unabridged Shakespeare Biography

The knight’s unfettered indulgence in sensual pleasures, his exuberant mendacity, and his love of his own ease, are purged of offence by his colossal wit and jollity, while the contrast between his old age and his unreverend way of life supplies that tinge of melancholy which is unseparable from the highest manifestations of humour. The Elizabethan public recognised the triumphant success of the effort, and many of Falstaff’s telling phrases, with the names of his foils, Justice Shallow and Silence, at once took root in popular speech. Shakespeare’s purely comic power culminated in Falstaff; he may be claimed as the most humorous figure in literature. 

No other literary figure provokes as much emotional range as Falstaff (whose only rival in Shakespeare is the much younger and more melancholic Hamlet), from his male bluster and moral transgressions to his comic wit, buffoonish pride, mastery of language, passion for living, displaying a cheerfulness that is endlessly contagious, where his one man theatrical show is endlessly engaging throughout the ages, never allowing himself to be outsmarted in verbal sparring, yet ultimately he becomes such a tragic figure.  To that end, a rotund and oversized Welles has a field day with this larger than life character, immortalized by his performance on celluloid, where every line is heavily saturated with comic satire, much of it spoken at breakneck speed, where the man rises to every insult and comic jab, never losing faith in either himself or his prowess for language, becoming a legendary figure before our appreciative eyes, where we can’t wait to hear what he says next.  Surrounding himself with a ragtag group of outcasts and moral derelicts, the leader of a dissolute crew, he is the king of his own castle at telling tall tales with hilarious barroom exaggerations that grow even greater after every drink, always crying poverty to Mistress Quickly (Dame Margaret Rutherford), while she continually reminds him of his outstanding debt before pouring him another round.  Prince Hal, on the other hand, is a magnificent straight man, matching him drink for drink, feeding him endless possibilities to outwit the rank and file, whose level-headed assuredness in himself is not lost to either Falstaff or the audience, as his dexterity with the English language shows supreme confidence in himself.  Considering the times, Falstaff was like a walking professor, as he was consumed by the barbarous treachery that exists in nobility, making a mockery of it whenever he could, where clearly virtue was a concept in name only, as there was none to be seen in British royalty.  Falstaff preferred the more commonplace pleasures of eating, sleeping, drinking, and fornication, along with any other indulgences to be found, where moral excess was his middle name.  Falstaff considered himself a free man, and was certainly able to speak freely, yet his real thrill was liberating himself from the wretched society of the times, the nobility from which Prince Hal was spawned.  Both despised the pretense and moral hypocrisy of the royal court, taking the high ground while undercutting any opposition at the knees, yet as we come to learn, Falstaff’s freedom was not absolute.  While he revels in his marvelous ability to hold Prince Hal’s rapt attention, loving him as he would his own son, he’s the real deal as a progenitor of ideas and knowledge, not an ounce of counterfeit, where he thrives on his grandiose personality, yet Hal remains a mirror image in concept only, as he warns Falstaff of what awaits him, that he will have to reject him and his lifestyle one day, as he is, after all, the prince in waiting, “I know you all, and will awhile uphold / The unyoked humor of your idleness.”  But these thoughts fall on deaf ears, producing only a sad smile from Falstaff, and not one of awareness or recognition, yet somehow we know these two are bound together, no matter what fate has in store for them. 

The film’s central dynamic is Falstaff’s relationship with Hal, who avoids service to his king by keeping company with Falstaff, who clearly loves him and lavishes him with affection, accepting him as he is, something his own father is incapable of doing.  Nonetheless this friendship will be challenged, as Hal seems incapable of reciprocating in kind, remaining non-committal, where a good deal of the early horseplay in the tavern is at the expense of Falstaff, playing jokes on him while eagerly waiting for his exaggerated reaction.  While there are moments of delightful comedy, there is also an undertone of cruelty behind much of the humor, making the aging and oversized Falstaff an easy target.  Insults are hurled at him not to elicit audience sympathy, but rather to have a laugh at Falstaff’s expense.  When they agree to disguise themselves to rob a group of traveling pilgrims known to be carrying cash in the nearby forest, Hal plays a trick on Falstaff and steals the loot from him in yet another disguise, causing him to run away in a panic.  But to hear Falstaff boast of his heroics in the tavern afterwards, supposedly fending off a handful of scoundrels with his sword, with the number growing by the minute, with Hal ultimately exposing his fabrication as a pathetic ruse, there’s a building feeling of making fun of the fat guy, where it’s easy to laugh at fools who have been stripped of all dignity and any ounce of self respect, and while there’s a lighthearted tone about it, there’s also something deeply flawed and tragic about the character that must have drawn Welles to playing this role, adding a kind of childlike innocence to his mirth.  While Falstaff cheats nearly everyone he encounters, offering bluff and bravado as a means of garnering his way into our hearts, yet there’s an inherent good nature behind his acts, as perhaps friendship, having a drink and a good laugh, was all he ever desired.  Unlike Hal, he never had designs on becoming a king.  Hal, on the other hand, leads a dual life, one drinking and carousing with Falstaff and his merry men, and another under the scathing watch of his father, the king, who continually chastises him for wasting his youth with villainous company.  The height of the comic fervor takes place when Falstaff and Hal engage in a bit of roleplaying, each one absurdly playing the king, creating a mad flourish of a play within a play, with Falstaff, wearing a pot on his head as the crown, lecturing Hal as only a father can, bringing the house down in laughter before ruminating on the many virtues of that fine fellow, Falstaff.  Yet when Hal assumes the role of king, he berates Falstaff, describing him as “That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan,” accusing him of iniquities, even threatening him with banishment, with Falstaff (as Hal) pleading for his defense, suggesting he could get rid of anyone else but Falstaff, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”  At some point, the laughs subside and seriousness takes hold, where the play stops being a play and becomes something else in earnest, as in this story, Falstaff, in all his enormity, is the entire universe, where he is a stand-in for all of humanity. 

The appeal of Falstaff is described by English literary scholar A. C. Bradley, from Harold Bloom’s book William Shakespeare, William Shakespeare - Page 142 - Google Books Result

The bliss of freedom gained in humour is the essence of Falstaff. His humour is not directed only or chiefly against obvious absurdities; he is the enemy of everything that would interfere with his ease, and therefore of anything serious, and especially of everything respectable and moral. For these things impose limits and obligations, and make us the subjects of old father antic the law, and the categorical imperative, and our station and its duties, and conscience, and reputation, and other people's opinions, and all sorts of nuisances. I say he is therefore their enemy; but I do him wrong; to say that he is their enemy implies that he regards them as serious and recognizes their power, when in truth he refuses to recognize them at all. They are to him absurd; and to reduce a thing ad absurdam is to reduce it to nothing and to walk about free and rejoicing. This is what Falstaff does with all the would-be serious things of life, sometimes only by his words, sometimes by his actions too. He will make truth appear absurd by solemn statements, which he utters with perfect gravity and which he expects nobody to believe; and honor, by demonstrating that it cannot set a leg, and that neither the living nor the dead can possess it; and law, by evading all the attacks of its highest representative and almost forcing him to laugh at his own defeat; and patriotism, by filling his pockets with the bribes offered by competent soldiers who want to escape service, while he takes in their stead the halt and maimed and jailbirds; and duty, by showing how he labours in his vocation—of thieving; and courage, alike by mocking at his own capture of Colevile and gravely claiming to have killed Hotspur; and war, by offering the Prince his bottle of sack when he is asked for a sword; and religion, by amusing himself with remorse at odd times when he has nothing else to do, and the fear of death, by maintaining perfectly untouched, in the face of imminent peril and even while he feels the fear of death, the very same power of dissolving it in persiflage that he shows when he sits at  ease in his inn. These are the wonderful achievements which he performs, not with the sourness of a cynic, but with the gaiety of a boy. And, therefore, we praise him, we laud him, for he offends none but the virtuous and denies that life is real or life is earnest, and delivers us from the oppression of such nightmares, and lifts us into the atmosphere of perfect freedom.

The centerpiece, however, and the turning point in the film, is the Battle of Shrewsbury, the only battle sequence ever staged by Welles throughout his entire career, and the moment when Henry and Hotspur’s quarrel comes to a head.  Though it starts out amusingly enough, with pomp and a parade of soldiers marched through the middle of town, including Falstaff, who is bid a tearful farewell from Doll Tearsheet (Jeanne Moreau) waving from the window, as they round up all able-bodied men ready for war, with Falstaff immediately securing bribes from draft dodgers, where knights clad in armor are lowered by ropes from tree branches and placed directly onto horses, except for Falstaff, who is too heavy, despite a team of men pulling on the ropes, and unfortunately crashes to the ground, content apparently to walk into battle, seen raising his sword in the direction of the enemy.  The prelude to battle is given an ominous tone, where there is an exchange of last minute demands that are angrily refused, with two sides at opposite ends of a barren field with hovering fog looming between them.  Technically innovative and brilliantly edited, arguably the greatest sequence he ever filmed, rousing music plays as troops charge at one another, where there is a combination of archers, knights on horseback, and warriors on foot all clashing at once, where the moment blows are exchanged, the thundering sound of hooves give way to the brutal sounds of clanking armor, with men being pulled off their horses and bludgeoned, with spears flying through the air continually targeting enemy foes, where it’s impossible to tell one side from the other, as the result is utter chaos.  Placed directly into the center of the carnage, with a soundtrack turned mournful and elegiac, with the cries of men contrasted against a wailing woman’s chorus, Welles produces a six-minute sequence of tracking shots, quick cuts, and hand-held cameras as the warring armies tumble over one another in the mud, relentlessly beating and stabbing one another, slowed to slow motion, where we see legs and boots sunk in the mire along with countless bodies strewn along the wayside.  Throughout it all Falstaff is seen aimlessly running from side to side, avoiding all contact, always scurrying to find refuge behind available shrubbery, where he witnesses the climactic swordfight between Hal and Hotspur, a valiant duel where Hal redeems himself with his courage on the battlefield, where the battle ends with the death of Hotspur, so shocked at the result that he can’t even finish his final speech before he dies.  True to his character, a lying Falstaff takes credit for slaying Hotspur, and doing so before the king, no less, stealing the young prince’s moment of glory, creating resentment by leaving lingering doubts about his son’s valor in the mind of the king.  This intentional deception, added to the senseless brutality of war, have a way of overshadowing any notion of supposed honor, leaving us to ponder the level of gravity of each offense.  While there are a series of eloquent speeches at the end, with Gielgud rivalling Welles at every turn, the king’s health deteriorates, bringing about a last minute father and son reconciliation before he passes the crown to Henry V, but instead of that jubilant moment Falstaff always hoped and dreamed for with Hal suddenly anointed king, the severity with which he cuts his ties with Falstaff is quick and decisive, ultimately becoming a sad tale of rejection and betrayal, leaving him alone to wander the wastelands.  Heartbroke and losing all will to live, Falstaff fades away overnight, leaving his young page (played by none other than his own daughter Beatrice Welles) to announce his death, where in a remarkably grim final shot, his coffin is pushed back out into that barren wasteland.        

Thursday, May 26, 2016

2016 Top Ten List #7 Sunset Song

director Terence Davies on the set 

SUNSET SONG                     A-                   
Great Britain  Luxembourg  (135 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  Terence Davies

And out she went, though it wasn’t near kye-time yet, and wandered away over the fields; it was a cold and louring day, the sound of the sea came plain to her, as though heard in a shell, Kinraddie wilted under the greyness. In the ley field old Bod stood with his tail to the wind, his hair ruffled up by the wind, his head bent away from the smore of it. He heard her pass and gave a bit neigh, but he didn’t try to follow her, poor brute, he’s soon be over old for work. The wet fields squelched below her feet, oozing up their smell of red clay from under the sodden grasses, and up in the hills she saw the trail of the mist, great sailing shapes of it, going south on the wind into Forfar, past Laurencekirk they would sail, down the wide Howe with its sheltered glens and its late, drenched harvests, past Brechin smoking against its hill, with its ancient tower that the Pictish folk had reared, out of the Mearns, sailing and passing, sailing and passing, she minded Greek words of forgotten lessons — Nothing endures.  

And then a queer thought came to her there in the drooked fields, that nothing endured at all, nothing but the land she passed across, tossed and turned and perpetually changed below the hands of the crofter folk since the oldest of them had set the Standing Stones by the loch of Blawearie and climbed there on their holy days and saw their terraced crops ride brave in the wind and sun. Sea and sky and the folk who wrote and fought and were learned, teaching and saying and praying, they lasted but as a breath, a mist of fog in the hills, but the land was forever, it moved and changed below you, but was forever, you were close to it and it to you, not at a bleak remove it held you and hurt you. And she had thought to leave it all!

She walked weeping then, stricken and frightened because of that knowledge that had come on her, she could never leave it, this life of toiling days and the needs of beasts and the smoke of wood fires and the air that stung your throat so acrid, Autumn and Spring, she was bound and held as though they had prisoned her here. And her fine bit plannings!—they'd been just the dreamings of a child over toys it lacked, toys that would never content it when it heard the smore of a storm or the cry of sheep on the moors or smelt the pringling smell of a new ploughed park under the drive of a coulter. She could no more teach a school than fly, night and day she’s want to be back, for all the fine clothes and gear she might get and hold, the books and the light and learning.  

The kye were in sight then, they stood in the lithe of the freestone dyke that ebbed and flowed over the shoulder of the long ley field, and they hugged to it close from the drive of the wind, not heeding her as she came among them, the smell of their bodies foul in her face-foul and known and enduring as the land itself. Oh, she hated and loved in a breath! Even her love might hardly endure, but beside it the hate was no more than the whimpering and fear of a child that cowered from the wind in the lithe of its mother’s skirts.

—passage from Sunset Song, first of a novel trilogy known as A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932, A Scots Quair - Page 119 - Google Books Result

Based on the 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the pseudonym of James Leslie Mitchell, part of a collective trilogy known as A Scots Quair consisting of three novels, Sunset Song published in 1932, Cloud Howe in 1933, and Grey Granite in 1934, completed shortly before his death the following year at the age of 33.  For decades afterwards his books were all but impossible to buy, though they have steadily come back into print.  The first, Sunset Song(mandatory reading in Scotland), is considered the best Scottish book of all time according to a 2005 poll from The List magazine conducted in association with the Scottish Book Trust (BBC NEWS | UK | Scotland | Mearns classic lifts book honour), though it caused a moral scandal when it was released.  While not explicit by modern standards, the book dealt openly with sexual matters in a frank manner that caused many to reject it at first, but eventually the book was embraced by the same northeast Scotland Aberdeenshire community being depicted in the novel.  Mitchell’s father was an impoverished farmer who was bitterly hostile to a child’s education interfering with his livelihood, so he read everything he could get his hands on, loathed farmwork, considered it slave labor, and instead ran away from home at the age of 16 to become a young reporter.  A fierce advocate of socialism, he was blacklisted by the newspaper and eventually joined the army, becoming a clerk in the RAF for nearly a decade, traveling to the Middle East, before devoting his life to writing.  Drawing heavily upon his childhood, Sunset Song is a revolutionary work, a mixture of stream-of-conscience and social realism, cleverly crafted in an innovative blend of English and Scots language (while his other works are written in plain English), noted for its use of humor, politics, and worldly characterization, showing amazing insight into a woman’s mind, a deep understanding of the complexity of human behavior, and a compassion for the human race, creating one of the strongest female characters in modern literature, following her as a young 14-year old girl in a tight-knit farming community through the passing seasons, weddings, funerals, and the eventual toll of World War I, becoming a testament to Scotland’s agricultural past that was wiped out and destroyed by the war, becoming a powerful statement about waste, loss of tradition, and social deterioration in the modern world.  Writing a first draft for the film in 1997, Terence Davies noted the film has languished in a kind of funding purgatory for nearly two decades following repeated rejections from funding sources, claiming “That kind of thing erodes your soul, and I almost gave up.  I’m not a mainstream filmmaker and the UK Film Council was set up to try and ape Hollywood.  So the climate was terrible for the type of film I wanted to make.” (News News - The Sunday Times)

Without subtitles (which would definitely enhance the experience), much of the language is missed, while initially there is an odd and peculiar style that takes some getting used to, especially the blend of artifice and searing realism, but the wrenching power is unmistakable, creating a haunting and elegiac work of ultimate devastation.  Davies is a master at getting to the heart of the matter, and by the end, much like his best works Distant Voices, Still Lives(1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), his poetic literacy is just stunning.  Opening with a rapturous look of the golden wheatfields, the novels are set in a fictional village in “The Mearns,” a sparsely-populated area characterized by farmlands, forestry and empty hills that rise heading inland from the coast towards the peaks of the Grampian Mountains, while the film is haunted by the foreshadowing of early words spoken by the protagonist’s mother, “You’ll need to face men for yourself.”  Chris, played by Agyness Deyn, English fashion model, actress and singer, is a 14-year old farmer’s daughter with a thirst for education, harboring ambitions of becoming a teacher, which is viewed as among the noblest professions. We soon recognize the dichotomy of the family, a bullying and overly pious father (Peter Mullan) and an overburdened mother (Daniela Nardini), where the father continually picks on her older brother Will (Jack Greenlees), finding him weak and fragile, singling him out for harsh punishments that include beatings, while also brutalizing his own wife with uncontrolled lust, where the prevailing view of marriage at the time, supported by religious dogma, was for women to be bound by a man’s wishes and desires, treated as little more than personal property, leaving her utterly demoralized.  This was the path of righteousness in her father’s eyes, yet what they witnessed in his ruthless behavior only made them cower with fear, and in Will’s case, generated outright hatred, where he wanted to get as far away from him as he could.  The merciless patriarchal behavior on display is not only disconcerting but grotesque, yet in one extraordinary shot the anguished cries coming from the bedroom lead to the protracted wailing of child delivery, reminiscent of the agonizing screams in Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972), among the most extended uncomfortable moments in film.  When it’s announced that twins are born, instead of elation, it only adds to a perception of deepening misery, further exacerbated by scenes of the entire family moving to a larger countryside home in a deluge of rain, eventually settling into the Blawearie place on the fictional lands of Kinraddie.  In no time, the mother poisons herself and the newborn twins after discovering she is pregnant again.  Davies leaves no mistaking the brutal harshness of the conditions, rendering a faithful portrait of Scottish life dominated by men, where women silently suffer in perpetuity.  Chris assumes the role of her mother, but is torn between competing versions of herself, an English Chris that loves books and wants to go to University, and a Scottish Chris that loves the land of her birth, but also develops a growing resentment at the arduousness of farming life. 

Contrasting the beauty of the landscape with the violence inflicted upon one another, the film is luxuriously shot by cinematographer Michael McDonough, where the outdoors resembles painterly masterpieces hanging on museum walls, using 65mm for the lush exteriors as well as a digital camera, where the literary aspect of Chris’s inner narration offers a kind of unapologetic pastoralism that provides the guiding light of the film, “But the land was forever. It moved and changed below you, but it was forever.”  Using a stylistic technique known as “memory realism,” Davies portrays everyday life with a vivid naturalism, which allows him to delve into the inner psychology of Chris, whose maturity, represented by her changing mindset, continues to advance the story.  The surrounding land of Kinraddie is seen as mythical, viewed in almost utopian terms, where it is a land and tradition worth defending, even if the inhabitants remain stuck in their own backward ways, where one of the strongest impressions counteracting her father’s viciousness comes from a neighboring farmer, Chae Strachan (Ian Pirie), a strapping physical specimen whose gentle kindness always feels welcomed and appreciated.  His presence throughout the film becomes synonymous for the mindset of the other farmers, where he is always viewed as a virtuous man.  When her father suffers a debilitating stroke, paralyzed and bedridden afterwards, barely able to speak, totally reliant upon his daughter, yet his abusive mindset never changes, where he attempts to impose his wrath upon his daughter, with suggestions of incestuous rape.  With a blasphemous justification of his lust for Chris, and his brutality towards Will, we see the destructive possibilities of his harsh, single-minded religious belief.  When she ignores him afterwards, shutting him out of her life as if traumatized, it’s hard not to be sympathetic for her position, even when he dies. As if a dark cloud has been removed from hovering overhead, her demeanor changes instantly, emboldened by her own freedom, as for the first time she takes charge of her life.  Inheriting the farm, as her brother ran off to Argentina, she takes an interest in one of her brother’s friends, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), humorously realized in a street scene where both are overwhelmed by a flock of sheep that suddenly appear in the middle of a conversation as the sheep are herded down the middle of the street.  In no time at all they are married, where the meticulous nature of the extended wedding sequence is sumptuously realized, an uplifting and joyous occasion with plenty of drink, dancing, and song, where Chris drops hearts with an a capella rendition of “The Flowers of the Forest,” a sad lament with historical roots that may as well be the Scottish National Anthem.  This punctuates their marital bliss with a particularly appropriate spiritual blessing, resulting in the birth of a child, named after Ewan, where their lives, never happier, feel beautifully intertwined and in perfect harmony with the surrounding fields, whose rhapsodic harvest resembles Dovzhenko’s mythic pastoral depiction in EARTH (1930), where this brief rural idyll seamlessly evolves into poetic literary description where only the land endures, becoming “the splendour of life like a song, like the wind.”

It came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for besides sheep-buchts, remembered at night and at twilight.  The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs. 

While Chris feels relieved when her father dies, it is from him mainly that she inherits her peasant spirit, where she is drawn to the presence of the Standing Stones (Pictish stones) that dominate the landscape, relics of a pre-Christian era that connects them all to their pasts, that embody a sense of timelessness, yet whose meaning remains elusive and lost.  At the onset of World War I, which is the first moment we really get a firm sense of time, there is a jingoistic spirit in the air, where Chae Strachan enlists, believing it will bring about a new socialist era, thoroughly misled by the newspapers to volunteer for the army in 1914, where those that didn’t were called cowards.  Ewan has no interest in fighting, as his life is running a farm, but he’s goaded into joining the thousands of other young men sent to the European front for prolonged trench warfare, where the idea of honor and nobility becomes confused with masculinity, as his entire perspective undergoes a crude transformation, where the influence of war turns him into a ruthless savage, returning shortly after training where he is little more than a bullying beast, the spitting image of her father, coarse, brutal, and vulgar, drunk nearly the entire time, treating her horribly, where Chris needs to grab a knife to defend herself from his boorish advances, leaving again shortly afterwards for France without so much as a word from Chris.  But the reality of the war is a distant event and is barely noticed in Kinraddie, yet the magnitude of its impact leaves an indelible impression, as so many men that left never returned, including Ewan Tavendale, who we learn afterwards was shot as a deserter, where there are fleeting moments that remind one of the absurdity of the military trials in Kubrick’s PATH’S OF GLORY (1957).  In the aftermath, the sweeping aerial shot of the abandoned war zone is a stark reminder of those who lost their lives trapped in a vile and meaningless existence of barbed wire and mud, a kind of hell on earth that is both beautiful and appalling, yet also a chilling reminder of how a nation so willingly sacrificed their own sons in an excessive display of warmongering at the expense of human conscience and genuine humanity.  A thought provoking film, where the overriding tenderness lies in the aftermath of war, punctuated by Scottish folk songs, languorous images of a timeless landscape, time-altering 365 degree pans, and dissolves between shots that make it appear people are melting into the earth and sky, where it’s hard not to be swept away by the sheer painterly beauty of the film.  But the emotional intensity of the last fifteen minutes is utterly transfixing, deeply tragic and profoundly uplifting, that begins with an eloquent tracking shot following the inhabitants of the entire town, one by one, walking through the wheatfields on their way to a church memorial service, where the thunderous sounds of a mournful chorus accompany them throughout,Glasgow Phoenix Choir - 'All in the April Evening ... - YouTube  (3:39), where the elegiac music becomes the unspoken sermon.  But nothing is as memorable as the final outdoor memorial service, where the names of the Kinraddie men killed at war are inscribed in the Standing Stones, where a new reverend makes an impassioned speech with clear communist leanings, denouncing the British government’s war policy, comparing it to imperial Rome, “They have made a desert and they call it peace” (A Scots Quair - Google Books Result), while a Highlander in kilts and bagpipes is silhouetted against the sky, much like the bugler against the red sky in John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), playing “The Flowers of the Forest,” not really a folk song, but a national song of reverence commemorating the Scottish dead at the Battle of Flodden against England in 1513, now reserved almost exclusively for funerals or memorial services.  

In the sunset of an age and an epoch we may write that for epitaph of the men who were of it. They went quiet and brave from the lands they loved, though seldom of that love might they speak, it was not in them to tell in words of the earth that moved and lived and abided, their life and enduring love. And who knows at the last what memories of it were with them, the springs and the winters of this land and all the sounds and scents of it that had once been theirs, deep, and a passion of their blood and spirit, those four who died in France? With them we may say there died a thing older than themselves, these were the Last of the Peasants, the last of the Old Scots folk. A new generation comes up that will know them not, except as a memory in a song, they pass with the things that seemed good to them, with loves and desires that grow dim and alien in the days to be. It was the old Scotland that perished then, and we may believe that never again will the old speech and the old songs, the old curses and the old benedictions, rise but with alien effort to our lips. The last of the peasants, those four that you knew, took that with them to the darkness and the quietness of the places where they sleep. And the land changes, their parks and their steadings are a desolation where the sheep are pastured, we are told that great machines come soon to till the land, and the great herds come to feed on it, the crofter is gone, the man with the house and the steading of his own and the land closer to his heart than the flesh of his body. Nothing, it has been said, is true but change, nothing abides, and here in Kinraddie where we watch the building of those little prides and those little fortunes on the ruins of the little farms we must give heed that these also do not abide, that a new spirit shall come to the land with the greater herd and the great machines. For greed of place and possession and great estate those four had little heed, the kindness of friends and the warmth of toil and the peace of rest – they asked no more from God or man, and no less would they endure. So, lest we shame them, let us believe that the new oppressions and foolish greeds are no more than mists that pass. They died for a world that is past, these men, but they did not die for this that we seem to inherit. Beyond it and us there shines a greater hope and a newer world, undreamt when these four died. But need we doubt which side the battle they would range themselves did they live today, need we doubt the answer they cry to us even now, the four of them, from the places of the sunset?

And then, as folk stood dumbfounded, this was just sheer politics, plain what he meant, the Highlandman McIvor tuned up his pipes and began to step slow round the stone circle by Blawearie Loch, slow and quiet, and folk watched him, the dark was near, it lifted your hair and was eerie and uncanny, the ‘Flowers of the Forest’ as he played it . . .

It rose and rose and wept and cried, that crying for the men that fell in battle, and there was Kirsty Strachan weeping quietly and others with her, and the young ploughmen they stood with glum, white faces, they’d no understanding or caring, it was something that vexed and tore at them, it belonged to times they had no knowing of.

He fair could play, the piper, he tore at your heart marching there with the tune leaping up the moor and echoing across the loch. Folk said that Chris Tavendale alone shed never a tear, she stood quiet, holding her boy by the hand, looking down on Blawearie’s fields till the playing was over. And syne folk saw that the dark had come and began to stream down the hill, leaving her there, some were uncertain and looked them back. But they saw the minister was standing behind her, waiting for her, they’d the last of the light with them up there, and maybe they didn’t need it or heed it, you can do without the day if you’ve a lamp quiet-lighted and kind in your heart.