Blake Backlash watches Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel and remembers reading the book in school. He compares the endings – so there are spoilers.
For a moment, Terence Davies directing Sunset Song seemed as welcome and inevitable as harvest coming after seed-time. The First World War changed that. Halfway through the film I was trying to work out where I could make room for it in this year’s top ten. But by the end, after what seemed like a serious mis-step into No Man’s Land, I was struggling to understand what I didn’t like about the film.
A few years ago Sunset Song was voted Scotland’s Favourite Novel. A bit of me thinks most folk who voted for it have a relationship with it similar to the one they have with Scottish Country Dancing: they make you do it like school, and you wouldn’t admit to liking it at the time. But when it’s over you’re glad you did it and years later, you’re surprised how much of it you remember and look back on fondly.
When I first read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel it seemed… well, deliberately paced. Chris Guthrie, the protagonist, grows up in the early part of the 20th Century on a farm in the North-East of Scotland. At the tail end of the 20th Century, I was in similar part of Scotland, sixteen, and inevitably impatient. I thought I wanted to read about cities, not wee Scottish villages like the one I grew up in. But Gibbon’s prose made Chris’s life seem as harsh and vivid as sunlight in winter. I remember being bored but oddly absorbed inside my boredom and, now and then, taken aback at how frank the novel was. The film retains this capacity to shock – some people walked out of the cinema when I saw it. We watch as Chris and her brother lie awake, listening to their father rape their mother. Davies cuts from this moment to their faces as they listen to her giving birth, her unbroken cries of pain getting louder on the soundtrack as we are taken from brutal conception to brutal birth. (Peter Mullan and Daniella Nardini are both good as Chris’s parents).
It’s a harrowing moment and not the only one in the book or the film. Davies builds his film around moments – painful and joyful – and at times his conception of them seemed irreproachable. I thought a lot about the affinity his work has with Gibbon’s. They both strive to evoke the passage of time, what changes and what doesn’t. And they both seem sceptical about simplistic notions of progress, while remaining clear-eyed about the past. Gibbon’s novel is divided into four sections, called Ploughing, Drilling, Seed-Time, and Harvest. ‘Nothing endures but the land’ was the quote you knew you would use when you wrote about Sunset Song in your exam. For Gibbon, what is eternal does not reside in blue heavens, but in dark earth. And on that earth: the cycles, rituals, and ceremonies that draw his characters into a community.
One of those ceremonies – Chris Guthrie’s wedding to Ewan Tavendale – is captured uncannily well in Davies’ film. His camera pans from a face, to a dress; preparations become celebrations. Chris sings ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ and Agynes Dean nails it (I hope it really is her voice). Kevin Guthrie (who plays Ewan) is good at capturing Ewan’s early devotion to Chris, and when he turns to look at her as she sings, I really felt like I was watching someone overwhelmed by love on their wedding day. The moment seemed to be unfolding before me, I felt like a witness, like the tears were there not because of some film but because I was at a wedding. When everyone sang Auld Lang Syne, I wanted to join in. And, you know, if Sunset Song isn’t my top ten, these ten or so minutes left me dazzled by what films can do as much as anything in Mad Max: Fury Road.
But but but… soon after this scene there’s a moment where a (now pregnant) Chris tells Ewan ‘things are changing for the better’ just before someone rides past of a cart crying out ‘We’re at war, Britain’s at war with Germany!’
The War – what it changes and what it leaves unchanged – is a crucial part of Gibbon’s novel (in particular how it warps and brutalises Ewan). Some of it is so horrible that, knowing what was coming, I was physically dreading those scenes in the film. They’re powerful when arrive. But when Davies takes us to the trenches we get a lot of mud and barbed wire in close-up (this felt like a reminder of budgetary restrictions). And we hear ‘Flowers of the Forest’ again, but in a lusher contemporary arrangement. I’m not sure who it is that’s singing it (probably someone famous and well-respected now I’m being mean about it) but there was a hint of crooning about the performance which – along with the visuals – broke the film’s spell on me. I heard Terence Davies on the radio today, talking about avoiding sentiment, I’m not sure he avoided it here.
Then the film ends. I don’t think it’s a problem that the focus moves away from Chris. I think it does matter that it scarcely has time to return to her before it’s finished. The film ends with Chris listening to a piper and watching a sunset. This feels like a rather brutally edited version of the final scene of the novel, set around the dedication of a war memorial by the standing stones above the town. The landscape has changed but the land endures. And Ewan has changed but Chris endures – by the end of the novel she’s had another lover and found another husband. At the end of the film she is grieving for a husband. I remember her as being vaster and deeper than any one man. Mind you, I was sixteen when I first encountered her, and she used to stand naked in front of her window, reflecting on existence. So she was vaster and deeper than me. But I can’t help feeling the film diminishes her a little in its closing moments.
Still, that wedding scene is something. So see the film. But read the book too.