How does where we grow up shape who we grow up to be? What challenges, traumas, and triumphs will remain in our memory as the years slip away? Can anyone transcend family history to find a better life? Sunset Song understands these are questions best answered through experience.
Set in rural Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century, Sunset Song boasts the exquisite costume and set detail one would expect from a period drama. Yet it seeks less to awe you through depictions of the past than to draw you into the head of a single young woman. Director Terence Davies boldly anchors the film in her memories, trusting his audience to experience a brutal life and come away with an understanding of history and culture only a singular perspective can bring.
The perspective in question belongs to Chris, a teenager as the film opens, a girl in love with her country. Or rather, in love with the small part of it she knows. She has never left the farming region she was born in and in fact rarely leaves Balwearie, her family farm. Yet she makes it clear she sees this expanse of wheat fields and livestock as indicative of the spirit of Scotland. She recalls her childhood in school trying to learn the words to express her Scottish identity, remarking that of all the languages the teachers made her study, none held the power to say much of anything meaningful. Instead Chris lies in golden wheat fields, reads the Bible around the family table, and laughs with her siblings. These idyllic images are Scotland to her.
Yet Davies understands the harsh truth of history, and no sooner do we glimpse the potential beauty of the land than we are reminded of the fact that will shape Chris’s life: she is a woman. Through editing that compresses time into a series of traumatic scenes, Chris’s mother is impregnated against her will (she fails to convince her belligerent husband they can’t afford to support another child), gives birth to twins in a torrent of screams and blood, and falls into a deep depression. She desperately searches for a way to guide Chris from this path of male-inflicted sorrow, but can only break down in her daughter’s arms and admit she has no advice to give.
As Chris begins her struggle alone against her father’s will, the film’s editing reveals itself as Davies’s most powerful tool. Time has a loose structure; scenes often begin in the middle of a heated moment and establishing shots are rare. Chris’s older brother is established as her only companion, only to be removed suddenly from the story without ceremony. Later in life, a romance leaps from flirting to marriage to childbirth in a series of detailed but disjointed scenes.
It takes the film a while to earn this jarring narrative structure. Davies allows his audience to grow frustrated as scenes fail to flow together into satisfying narrative arcs, and the lack of typical buildup and resolution in the plot becomes aggravating at times. But at some point it will sink in and begin to make sense; we aren’t supposed to be satisfied with the way events unfold. In fact, feelings of anger, confusion, and shock are deliberately crafted to bring the audience into Chris’s headspace. When an early sexual experience plays out in an uncomfortable long take, never to be mentioned again, the dissonance between the emotion of the scene and its place in the story mirrors the psychological damage Chris must feel as she tries to make sense of the event. When grand tableau shots hint at Chris’s connection to the land but the narrative fails to develop this theme significantly, it’s clear our heroine feels the same way. She longs for her love of Scotland to carry some power in her life, to develop as a meaningful part of her existence. But the world doesn’t work that way, and an occasional moment of beauty may be all she will ever receive.
It would ruin the effect of the film’s second half to discuss in depth how World War I figures into Chris’s life, but it is perhaps the clearest and most powerful example of the audience being drawn into her emotional perspective. Suffice it to say as war begins to engulf the world Chris remains on the same few acres of land she has always lived on, and we are locked there as well. Changes the war brings to her life and to those around her are as authentically shocking and horrifying to us as they are to her. The power the film’s last few sequences have on each viewer will vary, depending on how connected you feel to Chris’s perspective, but do your best to trust Davies through to the end. His love of Scotland may be grand, but his wisdom comes in reducing it to the Scotland of a single woman, and the power this perspective holds is worth the experience.
Trevor is an Idaho native learning to love big bad NYC as a second home (mostly Queens tho #bestburrough). He edits, watches, and writes about anything on a screen that doesn’t cost too much, and is a sucker for anything with world building. He believes the right way to go through life is with a podcast in one ear at all times and wants all your recommendations; gotta keep the pod feed fresh. You can read his thoughts at letterboxd.com and @t_roverw