“Nothing endures but the land”, and nothing quite captures the overarching theme of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ classic novel than this, its most famous quote. Sunset Song, the first novel of the trilogy “A Scots Quair”, is set in The Mearns (now Aberdeenshire) on the eve of the First World War. Widely regarded as one of the most important Scottish novels of the 20th century, it was penned and published by Gibbon in 1932.
This year’s atmospheric screen adaptation of the novel by Terence Davies (The House of Mirth; The Deep Blue Sea), was filmed at various locations across Aberdeenshire and the landscape remains centre-stage. Cinematographer Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone) fills the screen with brooding skies and rain-swept pastures, standing stones and the changing colours of the seasons.
We first meet Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) daydreaming in a field of golden barley. It soon becomes obvious that the young girl’s life is far from golden. Intelligent and ambitious, but yoked to the family farm, her dream of becoming a teacher and escaping her bleak domestic situation seems fragile at best: “Two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her”.
When her mother, exhausted from a life of drudgery and repeated childbearing, commits suicide, a grieving Chris is forced to abandon her studies and take on her mother’s role. The family is torn apart; the younger siblings adopted by a childless aunt, and Chris and her brother (Jack Greenlees) are forced to remain on the farm with their violent and bullying father (Peter Mullan).
While Davies’ screenplay tends to sidestep the issues which made Gibbon’s novel so controversial in its day – socialism, pacifism, incest and the role of women – Deyn’s portrayal of Chris adds much-needed emotional depth to the proceedings. Whether frozen with fear as her mother screams in childbirth, or contemplating her own burgeoning sexuality, Chris Guthrie is the ‘everywoman’ of this story – arguably the first feminist character of Scottish literature. Critics have voiced misgivings about the English actress and former model Agyness Deyn taking on such an iconic role, and in the early scenes she does seem a little too mature and willowy to be playing a fourteen year-old schoolgirl. For the most part however, her performance, with its pleasing mix of vulnerability and tenacity, is compelling.
Mullan also shines as the violent bully; the damaged and damaging individual who can never admit to his flaws. Kevin Guthrie is a convincing and likeable Ewan Tavendale, until he returns home on leave so brutalised by war that we fear Chris has merely swapped one abusive patriarchy for another. The scenes of his inebriated homecoming and the couple’s inability to reconnect are ham-fisted and spoil the delicate balance of the denouement. Ewan’s motivation for deserting his post on the Western Front, and his yearning for Chris and the land, are never fully explained or explored.
Long Rob of the Mill (Douglas Rankine), one of the most enduring and charismatic figures in the novel, has been disappointingly sidelined, despite his role as Chris’s long-term friend and mentor. The rather humourless screenplay would have benefitted from the miller’s doughty one-liners.
Screen adaptations of novels are always difficult, and this one has been something of a long-standing project for Davies. A lack of funding and other delays highlight the problems associated with getting independent films off the ground in Britain. All in all, the film is a cinematic treat for those who haven’t read the novel, and Davies, acclaimed for his treatment of themes of emotional endurance, has ensured that Gibbons’ main concerns have been adequately explored. Re-imagining a novel as much-loved as Sunset Song was always going to be a risk, and one would like to report that this adaptation has been a major success. Sadly, despite its beautiful sense of place and attention to period detail, the film falls somewhat short of the mark.