Toronto 2015: 'Sunset Song' review

Earth is the fundamental element of Terence Davis' sumptuous Sunset Song (2015), a lyrical adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel. Like an elegant love letter to the Scottish soil and the endurance of the people it sired, it makes full use of its anamorphic 65mm format with Michael McDonough's stunning landscape compositions. Within them lies the estate of Kinraddie in rural Aberdeenshire where the narrative charts the difficulties suffered by Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) as she navigates early womanhood. While there is hardship and anguish, Davis' deliberate and treatment of the source material ultimately lessens the dramatic impact even while it retains its splendour.

Certain readings of the novel see Chris as an allegorical embodiment of Scotland, but Davis' screenplay has reduced the presence of many of those contributing themes (such as the arrival of mechanical farm equipment) to minor asides. In this cinematic portrayal, Chris has a deep and abiding affinity for the land itself; that which will outlast all, good and bad. From the oppressive patriarchy of a bullying father, to the blossoms of love and the onset of the First World War, Chris must do the same. Where she is the land, so the narrative is like a day: the early promise of sunrise silenced by a cold, bleak morning; clouds parting for a clear afternoon; the melancholy disappearance of the light.

To extend the metaphor, it's ironically the gloaming at which Sunset Song misses its mark - or perhaps more accurately at which it becomes apparent that it has. There are several moments of heightened drama that jar with the tone set previously and perhaps ask two of the actors to inject a level of theatricality into performances that had previously been layered with subtlety. Despite playing the central character, Deyn has little to do in the early scenes, which primarily focus on Davis' recurring motif, the embittered father, this time in the form of the suitably growling abusive pa (Peter Mullan). When Chris finds herself the sole heir to family farm, Blawearie, Deyn really comes into her own, maturing into a woman strong of mind and will in a decidedly male world. This is certainly one day that is at its most genuinely beguiling during the bright afternoon, as Chris and her beau, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) romance with golden sunlight filtering through the lace curtains (McDonough captures the waning sunlight with aplomb). When war approaches, the pacing is revealed to have gone awry. Major conflicts are often employed as a motivator for decisive and immediate changes to character arcs, but here it's all too abrupt and rings hollow. Subsequently it means that in Sunset Song's final act there's a distinct absence of emotional heft when a tear in the eye is what is needed. Events are objectively moving, but they do not fully connect. Davis always knows how to wring out feeling and a long floating pan over No Man's Land is highly evocative and poignant, but Chris' travails don't quite hit home after a patiently captivating build-up.

The Toronto International Film Festival takes place from 10-20 September 2015. For more coverage, follow this link.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson


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