Terence Davies' film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song is structured around images more evocative than words. His raw depiction of a community in the wild and exposed north-east of Scotland just before the First World War exposes bullying, brutality, despair, love and almost incestuous insularity using exquisite shots of the dominating but awesome landscape as it moves through the extremes of both the mellow and vicious seasons to lay bare the frail and fragile relationships of the people of Kinraddie.
Events emerge slowly and significantly: shocking, tragic and sometimes achingly beautiful, interspersed by haunting Scottish melodies echoing in the valleys and hills. As the gaze of the young heroine Chris (Agyness Deyn) sears the skies, seeking sanity after the suicide of her mother who also poisoned her twin siblings in a desperate act to end their unbearable existence with Chris’ father (Peter Mullan), Davies uses landscape as metaphor, his unspoken narrator and main character. The result is a saturation of the senses.
Life in Karaddie is as primeval as nature itself. We see the fine line between making love and rape, intimate trust and domestic violence, the agonies and consequences of conscience. Abuse of power is a common theme: from husband to wife, father to child, the Presbyterian Minister to his people. Blasting the Kaiser of the First World War from his pulpit as an Anti-Christ who must be destroyed with much the same fervour as recent speeches in our own parliament, the minister exhorts his congregation to ostracise and threaten those who will not fight for their country. This abuse of power forces Chris’ husband Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) into the horrors of warfare in the trenches of France.
There is little humour in this film, apart from when Chris is asked before his funeral if she wants to see her father ‘before he is screwed down.’ Happiness is relatively brief; even the joy of her wedding to Ewan, then the dance in the barn before she and Ewan slip away into the snow to take to their marriage bed in the nearby farmhouse is over all too soon. The ominous clouds of oppression are ever present - and there are moments when you question whether even Chris is as untainted as she seems.
We experience with every sense resonating with the harmonies of the hillsides the immutable permanence and beauty of the landscape, backdrop to the tragedies we make of our lives and the heartbreak. This is, without doubt, the best film I have seen all year.
Sunset Song is now shpwing at FACT. Click here to book tickets.