Sunset Song review: ‘Too pinched to really shine’

16:19 05 December 2015

He’s often seen as an unfairly neglected director, but in Sunset Song, director Terence Davies shows his work could still do with some polish, says Michael Joyce.

Terence Davies, having made his reputation with boldly uncommercial fare like Distant Voices, Still Lives, has spent most of the last two decades working (or not working; he’s always found it difficult to get funding) in that most British of genres, the costume drama literary adaptation. Sunset Song, adapted from the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, is a tale of dour, austere Scottish farming folk and its theme is that nothing endures but the land. Previously his work has struck me as being infatuated with misery and self-pity; he seemed to have such a prune-faced world view, such a shrivelled repugnance of humanity, that the only book he’d be suited to adapting would be Morrissey’s autobiography. Here though he does at least entertain the possibility of hope and happiness. It’s comparatively chipper for a tale that contains executions, suicide, rape and filicide.

It’s 1911 and Chris (Deyn) is embedded in a large family unit living on a farm in the Grampians and ruled over by the occasionally brutal father (Mullan). She is one of four children, with two more on the way. Academically gifted, she sees education as a way to escape her life on the farm. With surprising speed, though, the various elements that contain her fall away and she finds her self in charge of her destiny and drawn to working the land. Her tale is full of setbacks and dismay but also a determination not to succumb.

Davies is always being pushed as a great but neglected British auteur, but Sunset Song isn’t the work of a master. It has strong performances and some wonderful, well-mounted moments, such as when the father takes his eldest son, Will (Greenlees), into the barn for a punishment beating and the camera stays fixed on their faces long after the beating is concluded. Other scenes, though, seem a little stilted: he has the ideas but not quite the skill (or maybe the time and the money) to do it properly. It’s a decent effort at getting the spirit of the book onto the screen but a little too pinched to really soar.

Rating: 3/5 stars

For a review of the Blu-ray release of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense and the documentary Future Shock! The Story of 2000 A.D, visit halfmanhalfcritic.weebly.com

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