Magazine article The Spectator

Cinema: Sunset Song

Magazine article The Spectator

Cinema: Sunset Song

Article excerpt

Sunset Song

15, Key Cities

Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song is the best-remembered title of a short career. Born in 1901, he was dead by 1935. The novel hymned the rhythms of rural life in north-east Scotland in prose that to modern ears sounds as if it comes from a museum of Grampian folklore. At its heart is Chris Guthrie, a spirited young woman whose dream of bettering herself as a teacher is thwarted by tragedy.

The world of Sunset Song is a bull's-eye for Terence Davies, the British director who has always been nostalgically drawn to the travails of unlucky women. Leadings actresses form an orderly queue to emote in his gorgeously lit interiors. Gillian Anderson was up for an Oscar for The House of Mirth and there was a Golden Globe nom for Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea .

Sunset Song calls for an actress who can pass for a teenager and bloom into womanhood, and Davies has plumped for Agyness Deyn, a rangy former model of surpassing loveliness who has no trouble persuading the camera to linger. Davies snakes around her in wind-quivered wheatfields and beside still reflecting ponds. Firelight and sunlight fall on her loganberry lips and peachy cheeks, pearly gnashers and soulful peepers. Inevitably, this being a coming-of-age story, he also watches her inspect her own shapeliness in the mirror. When an itinerant worker slurps kisses on her ankles, you've a job not to feel faintly complicit. Polanski felt similarly about Nastassja Kinski in Tess .

We are in the world of a Scottish Hardy, which finds a woman in soothing oneness with nature but blighted by the blindsadism of indifferent fate. The source of Chris's sorrows is another regular trope in Davies, whose work can be read as a career-long patricidal assault. His first tyrannical father was Davies's own, played by Pete Postlethwaite in the autobiographical reminiscence of a working-class Liverpool childhood, Distant Voices, Still Lives . The latest is Chris's father, a leathery God-fearing farmer who impregnates his suffering drudge of a wife to the sound of bedspring squeaks, soon followed by the agonising howls of labour. Peter Mullan, cinema's go-to Scottish ogre, imparts righteousness and pipe-smoking to a terrifying performance he's been varying for years. To give us all a break, might someone cast him in Hay Fever or Much Ado or somethingwith handbags and tulle? …

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