“Sunset Song” — the latest quiet work from cinemaster Terence Davies (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”) — is the humanist film to beat this year. Like a less portentous “Gone with the Wind,” his film is centered around a young Scottish girl named Chris (played with gusto by Agyness Deyn), raised on the farm, in love with life and the land. The spitfire antics of Scarlet are anathema to Deyn and Davies. Instead, Deyn channels her energies into a role contained purely in the stoic stateliness of her face and the calm, confident movements of her person.
This is one of those folksy epics (à la John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”) that stretches over a period of several years. There’s a daughter, Chris Guthrie (Deyn). She grows up under the iron tutelage of her father (Peter Mullan, in a frightening performance). Immediately, we’re sucked into her world — hating the father’s guts, siding with the battle-weary mother and her two resolute children: Chris and her brother. From the strictness of this brutish regime, Chris must find strength from within herself. Months later, when she finds a new beau (Kevin Guthrie), she comes to understand the face of pure love (Kevin Guthrie) and war-jittered hate (Kevin Guthrie). This unexciting actor — exactly two sides to him, no nuance, black and white, a “Brooklyn” extra’s conception of what a cute-patootie hunk should smile like, mixed with a “Birth of a Nation” silent-era-idea of how an evil suitor should sulk and stare — is caught between the warm, all-encompassing sheath of humanism and the tyranny and brutality of patriarchy.
“Sunset Song” is cobbled together in the broadest of strokes. Davies’ quilt-film — patch-work yet humble in construction, overly ambitious yet quietly soaring in reach — restores the integrity of day-to-day moments, in an attitude equal to the Takahata-Ghibli “Only Yesterday” (a similarly patched-together affair that’s better off for it). Through Chris, we are reminded of the slow and difficult process of needing to forget a loved one after they’ve died — forgetting, not because you’ve stopped loving or caring about the lost one, but because thinking too much about their absence will weigh heavily on your conscience, wreaking havoc on your mind and health and soul. Painful self-amnesia is devastating; all of this, in one quiet shot. In another moment, when Chris’s father and his pals sit around a table with a lonely pint of lager and croak, in out-of-tune unison, “Farewell and adieu to ye fair Spanish ladies…”, the overwhelming mood is one of naked desperation. The bluntness of this low-key, lowly-lit scene — punctuated, on either side of the tight frame, by Scottish people, not types — is breathtaking. Davies and the source author Lewis Grassic Gibbon remind us that in times of hope and happiness, there is despair and dread. Contrariwise, in times of dread and despair, there is happiness and hope. These mixings connect Davies to the other mercurial giants of the cinema, whose moods you can never pin down: Jacques Demy (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”), John Cassavetes (“A Woman Under the Influence”), David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook”, “Joy”).
There is rustic, leaves-of-grass, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”-ish poetry throughout the entire dream-film. The Scottish accents of the characters — lilting and wonderfully thick — makes us want to listen to what’s being communicated more tenderly, like Godard’s whispering voice-overs or Altman’s overlapping, mumbly chatter. The film wafts with the smell and feel of red crumbly earth. Sometimes, the potted earth disappears from beneath the characters who, in the next second, will be floating in wispy thin air. In one unforgettably simple moment lasting exactly nine seconds, two siblings walk through a field of wheat like two nomadic angels gliding through a bed of clouds. Stonehenge rocks which cut to a woman tending in a field — both of equal screen-size. Earlier, the brother is mercilessly whipped by the father, with Chris tending to this accidental Christ post-39 lashes like some benevolent, quotidian Mary. Yet even this image of religious holiness is complicated by Davies’ cutting criticism of the larger institution. Later, he heightens the tension of the mother’s painful birth with a baroque, Sirkian dolly-in to a Christ on the cross. This twisting-of-the-knife-shot is profound in its irony. And yet the complex dichotomy of these twin images is clear: Davies condemns the institution of religion, while admiring this same spiritual profundity that the institution provokes. Nothing is ever “this” or “that”; it is both.
Perhaps the facet of life Davies is most fascinated with and respectful of is time. You get the sense that he truly understands — deeper than any other filmmaker working today — the holiness of an edit. My proof is his Yasujiro Ozu-like ellipses where he daringly ellipses time to one breezy, blink-and-you-miss cut. This dizzyingly audacious technique is breathtaking when employed at just the right moment. A particularly horrifying example: The screaming of Chris’s mother, enduring yet another episode of marital rape at the hands of the father, cuts (in the same shot) to her screaming nine months later, during the throes of an equally painful childbirth. Yet if time can be shrunken to a shard and be awful, it can also stretch to infinity and be wonderful. The time it takes for Chris and her Ewan to fall in love takes place over a single marvelous long-take in shallow light. A light walk out: a marriage proposal: a cut to the next morning, when the happy couple has all but sealed the deal. Davies operates on a time-clock much more loosely urgent than what we’ve come to expect in neatly linear, safe Hollywood plots.
We should come to expect this level of beauty from a consummate master of the cinema like Mr. Davies. “Sunset Song” is the natural extension of the beauty he forged in lightning-bolts-of-insight like “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988) and “The Long Day Closes” (1992). In these films, his human empathy knows no bounds. That’s partly because his films intensely delve into his personal life like no other director I’ve known. His imagery can become outrageous at times — in “Long Day Closes,” a closet-door explodes and a boy (young Terence) comes out; in “Neon Bible”, a little boy (Drake Bell) grasps the moon with his hand. The silliness of these images on the surface becomes anything but once you get into the hypnotic lull of a Davies rhythm. The storybook look of his frames — tight Godardian boxiness (without the cold jokiness), a Wes Anderson-ish physical distance from the dolls’-house characters (without the chicness; Wes loves stepping back and watching spectacle unfold; Davies steps back because it gives his characters time to think & breathe) — suggest a parable on the level of Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”: clean, effective, goes in like Gangbusters and bangs out without a trace, stays in your consciousness longer than a long-winded artsy wow. Only a sleep-deprived person with foggy glasses could call Davies’ theatrical, melodramatic tableaux “contrived” and “over-the-top.”
“Sunset Song” confirms Davies’ position as England’s greatest working director. Few things are more frightening than a committed humanist. A total blurring of lines—seeing the common elements that tie ostensibly different people together—is hard to swallow. The battle-scarred cynic will find most of it phony or simplistic. But when it’s genuine, it’s hard to do anything but sit back and gasp in awe. This is poetry sculpted from experience, patience and duration. Premium parable-writing of the highest quality. The cinema of Terence Davies.
“Sunset Song” plays at the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and at the Camera 3 Cinema in San Jose.
Contact Carlos Valladares at [email protected].