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.