Friday, September 16, 2016

Sunset Song (2015)

    Great Britain, Luxembourg
    Director: Terence Davies
    Language: English
    135 min
    Distribution: Fortissimo Films
    Print source: Fortissimo Films
Theme: Impossible Girls
Love & Anarchy, 29th Helsinki International Film Festival (HIFF)
First screened 16 Sep 2016 at 20.45 Kinopalatsi 2

Mark Kermode quoted in the HIFF catalogue: "(M)many elements from Grassic Gibbon’s novel (…) resonate with the autobiographical themes explored in (…) Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. There is the abusive father, brilliantly played by Peter Mullan, who breathes both fury and pathos into the role of John Guthrie, a turn-of-the-century farming patriarch torn between the anger of devotion (he sings hymns while harvesting) and the demons of violence and lust (…). There is the yearning female voice, Agyness Deyn providing internal monologue narration for Chris, who is torn between the beauty of the ancient Scottish land on which she toils, and the “sharp, clean and true” English words of an education that may yet take her away from all this."

"Most importantly, there is song, ringing out through the natural rustle of wind and bird and harvest, threatening to transform this drama into a musical (…)."

"What sings clearest, however, is Michael McDonough’s ravishing cinematography, a blend of 65 mm celluloid stock and resiliently responsive digital that takes us from the (…) candlelit interiors through glowing fields of gold and green and up into cloudy skies (…)." - Mark Kermode, The Guardian

AA: After the personal Liverpool documentary Of Time and the City (2008) there has been a comeback for Terence Davies with The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Sunset Song (2015), and A Quiet Passion (2016). The newest two films are very different, yet they share certain features: both are coming-of-age stories of young women of an independent spirit who fight for their dignity. In both, there is a background of Protestant Puritanism.

Sunset Song is based on a novel from 1932 by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose books have not been translated into Finnish. Sunset Song is a coming of age story of young Chris[tine] Guthrie facing the harshness of the nature and the brutality of her father John. She gets married with a tender young farmer, Ewan, but the Great War breaks out, and Ewan returns home as a brutal monster not unlike Christine's father, and later he is later executed by firing squad as a deserter. Kevin Guthrie [it's confusing with the names of the actors and the characters, isn't it] portrays the terrible transformation of Ewan memorably.

The magnificent outdoors cinematography by Michael McDonough has been conducted on 65 mm film. The interiors have been shot in digital. The landscapes look magnificent, and it is no wonder that Sunset Song has been screened in IMAX theatres. A point of comparison might be David Lean, including Ryan's Daughter. I interviewed Terence Davies in the Helsinki International Film Festival masterclass, and Davies reported that Sunset Song was produced on a low budget. It certainly does not look like it. Sunset Song is a feast of sublime landscapes.

The performances are fine. Agyness Deyn embraces with conviction the challenge to portray Christine, the coming of age of a young girl, her growing up to a woman and a mother, protecting her child, and protecting herself against a husband turned violent. Peter Mullan is powerful as the evil father. There are predecessors to such figures in Davies's work. I was also thinking about a recent viewing of William Wyler's A House Divided with Walter Huston as a tyrant father, dangerous to everybody in his circle.

The language is sometimes hard to understand. It is essential that the characters speak Scottish, but I confess that I for one would benefit of subtitles - even in English.

In these years we remember the centenary of the First World War. The brutalization of Ewan is relevant to a contemporary understanding of the psychological impact of war trauma. We now know more than people did at the time. Also in Finland we are still coming to terms with our wars of the last century. During this festival is also screened Timo Korhonen's new documentary Sodan murtamat [Broken by the War]. Fathers came home, and how they had changed. There was sometimes a Jekyll / Hyde experience with veterans. In the court-martial and execution of Ewan I was thinking about King & Country, a favourite WWI film of mine. Ewan is not a coward. But sometimes too much is too much.

Christine looks fragile, but there is a survivor spirit in her, what we in Finland call sisu (stamina, endurance, perseverance). She is a Scottish counterpart to our Finnish Loviisa, the mistress of the Niskavuori farm, in Hella Wuolijoki's Niskavuori Saga. When men are broken they will carry on.


A Magnolia Pictures, Hurricane Films, Iris Productions and SellOutPictures production
Presented by
BFI, Film Fund Luxembourg, Creative Scotland and BBC Scotland


A film by Terence Davies
135 minutes; 2.35

Official Selection
2014 Toronto International Film Festival – World Premiere



Sunset Song is Terence Davies’ intimate epic of hope, tragedy and love at the dawning of the Great War. A young woman’s endurance against the hardships of rural Scottish life, based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, told with gritty poetic realism by Britain’s greatest living auteur. The film takes place during the early years of the twentieth century, with the conflicts and choices a young woman experiences reflecting the struggle between tradition and change; a struggle that continues to resonate today. Set in a rural community, Sunset Song is driven by the young heroine Chris and her intense passion for life, for the unsettling Ewan and for the unforgiving land. The First World War reaches out from afar, bringing the modern world to bear on the community in the harshest possible way, yet in a final moment of grace, Chris endures, now a woman of remarkable strength who is able to draw from the ancient land in looking to the future. Sunset Song is at once epic in emotional scale and deeply romantic at its core, given power by Terence Davies’ unflinching poetic realism.


It is thirty years ago now.

When the Sunday night serial on BBC1 went out in ancient Black & White.

“Sunset Song” by Lewis Grassic Gibbon was one of them and its grandeur has stayed with me.

It is a dark and brooding novel about the Scottish peasantry, about the land in  general and one family – The Guthries – in particular.

They are subsistence farmers extracting a meager living from the earth.

It is a novel about the power and cruelty of both family and Nature, about the enduring presence of the land and the courage of the human spirit in the face of hardship.

Against this background – but of equal stature – is the story of the daughter of the family,

Chris Guthrie and her evolution from schoolgirl to wife to mother to widow then finally becoming a symbol for Scotland itself.

The novel is both symbolic and rhapsodic.

It is a work of epic intimacy set before, during and after The Great War.

Yet it is delicate.

A filigree of the music of the seasons together with the more modest music of pipes and accordion, played at weddings with the Scottish voices singing the melancholy airs of the old times – “THE FLOWERS OF THE FOREST” and “AULD ROBIN”; songs to pull the heartstrings, to make you remember the long-dead, making you wish for the longed-for happiness which we all need – content and secure in the knowledge that we will never die…for we are young and in our prime.

But time is cruel and so is the land which gives life its harsh beauty, as well as its moments of epiphany beside the lamp or in the firelight at gloaming.

The song is yours and mine, of all who feel and have suffered or been happy.  It is the song heard with quiet courage in the face of death.  Or life.

But Chris has a deeper insight, an innate wisdom.  Chris sings the Song of the Earth for humanity, a rhapsody for us all as she charts the eternal cycle of birth, marriage and death.  As the song explores the timeless mysteries of land, home and family – this last one being the greatest mystery of all.  For the family contains all our greatest ecstasies and all our cherished terrors.

The book is suffused with a lyrical melancholy, a quiet threnody for the mystery of life…for life is a mystery contained within an enigma.

How can we bear time or subdue nature?

We cannot.

We can only endure.

At the end of the work a remembrance parade and service is held in an attempt to heal all suffering.

At the end of this great work time and the land endure beyond war, beyond human suffering even beyond life itself.

It is a story which deserves to be told.



Terence Davies is a globally respected writer and film director of both original and adapted works. As a filmmaker, Davies is noted for his recurring themes of emotional (and sometimes physical) endurance, the influence of memory on everyday life and the potentially crippling effects of dogmatic religiosity on the emotional life of individuals and societies. Stylistically, Davies’ works are notable for their symmetrical compositions, “symphonic” structure and measured pace. He is the sole screenwriter of all his films. The caliber of his work lead to Screen on the Green crediting him as ‘Britain’s Greatest Living Director’ in 2009.

Terence Davies was educated at Catholic Primary and Secondary schools in Liverpool followed by work in accounting and bookkeeping. From 1965 – 1973 he gained amateur acting experience, winning the LAMDA Gold Medal and first prize in the National Arts Awards. From 1973 – 1975 he was a student at The Coventry Drama School. From 1967 – 1975 he had a number of short stories and other pieces broadcast on radio, directed a stage play and had a one act play performed at Manchester University.

From 1977 – 1980 he was a student at the National Television and Film School. His first three films; Children, Madonna and Child and Death and Transfiguration, became known as his Trilogy and established his powerful aesthetic on the filmmaking scene. The prizes for his early films include Bronze and Gold Hugo’s from Chicago, and Madrid’s Special Jury Prize among many others.

Between 1985 and 1987 Terence wrote and directed his internationally acclaimed Distant Voices, Still Lives. The film received the following awards and nominations:

International Critics Prize – Cannes Film Festival 1988
Golden Leopard Award – Locarno Festival 1988
Winner of Critics Prize – Toronto Festival 1988
Best Foreign Film – Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award 1989
Best English Language Film and Best Director – The UK Critics Circle Award 1989
Best Film – Leeds Film Festival 1988
Special Mention – Ghent Festival 1988
Golden Spike and Best Photography – Valladolid Festival 1988
Cesar Award Nomination for Best Film from the European Community 1989
Prix de la Grand Prix – Belgian Critics 1990
Best Socially Engaged Film – Centre for Socialist Cultural Policy Belgium
Winner The Norwegian Film Award 1990
Nomination Best Foreign Film 1990 – Independent Spirit Award
Best Photography – Evening Standard Award
Nominated in 5 categories for The European Film Awards 1980
Best Film and Best Director – The Guild of Regional Film Writers Great Britain

Terence then wrote and directed The Long Day Closes for Channel 4 and The British Film Institute. The film received similar approbation from critics worldwide and was selected in the Official Competition at The Cannes Film Festival 1992. It also won Best Film at The Birmingham Film Festival in 1992, joint first prize, The Golden Spike, at Valladolid in 1992 and in the 1993 Evening Standard British Film Awards won Best Screenplay and was nominated for Best Film and Best Technical Achievement – Lighting, Editing and Design.

In 1996, Terence adapted and directed The Neon Bible. The film was taken from the novel by John Kennedy Toole and was financed by Scala Productions.

In 2000, Terence adapted and directed The House of Mirth from the Edith Wharton novel. Winner of Best Actress Award – Independent Film Awards.

In 2007/2008 he wrote, directed and narrated a documentary about Liverpool entitled Of Time And The City. Funded by Digital Departures, BBC and The Office of the City of Culture 2008, Liverpool, the film played over 50 festivals worldwide and won the New York Film Critics Circle Prize for Best Documentary 2009.

In 2011 Terence Davies adapted and directed Deep Blue Sea from the Terence Rattigan play of the same name. Starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale.

Director’s Selected Filmography:
2011     DEEP BLUE SEA
2008     OF TIME & THE CITY


PETER MULLAN (John Guthrie) began acting while in college in his native Scotland. Among his early feature-film acting credits were The Big Man, Riff Raff, Shallow Grave, Braveheart, Trainspotting, My Name Is Joe (for which he won numerous honors, including the Best Actor award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival), Miss Julie and Session 9. More recently Mullan starred in Criminal, Blinded, On a Clear Day, Children of Men, Dragnet, Stone of Destiny and The Red Riding Trilogy. He also appeared as the Death Eater Yaxley in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I and Part 2. He will next be seen starring with James McAvoy in writer/director Eran Creevy’s drama Welcome to the Punch.

AGYNESS DEYN (Chris Guthrie) was discovered by a modeling scout who signed her up with SELECT modeling agency. In 2007, she was featured on the cover of American VOGUE. Agyness Deyn's bleached cropped hair and steady gaze peered out of the Burberry, Giorgio Armani and Gold by Giles Deacon at New Look campaigns all at once (she replaced Drew Barrymore in the latter). She is one of the new crop of international supermodels, with her beatnik sense of style providing that all important X Factor. In the 2010 film Clash of the Titans, Deyn played Aphrodite, Greek goddess of beauty, love and sex. Soon after, Deyn played her first role on the West End stage, as Paula in François Archambault's comedy, The Leisure Society, to much acclaim. In 2011, Agyness appeared in Pusher, playing a strong minded stripper. She followed it with an acclaimed performance as the lead role in Electricity, playing Lilly - whose battle against epilepsy hampers her attempts to find her long-lost brother. The film was Officially Selected for the 58th London Film Festival- and Mark Kermode described Agyness' performance as “terrific”.

KEVIN GUTHRIE (Ewan Tavendale) has been working steadily in film and television since training at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire.

From starring opposite Hayley Atwell in the thriller Restless, to playing guest leads in Misfits, The Paradise, Two Doors Down, he has had a great presence on the small screen. He has set the stage alight in great leading roles in Peter Pan, Dunsinane, Beautiful Burnout and Macbeth in West End.

In 2013 Kevin was cast in the lead role as Ally in Dexter Fletcher's Sunshine on Leith, which was a hit across the world. This resulted in him being cast as Ewan Tavendale in Terence Davies' screen adaptation of the classic Scottish novel Sunset Song – the boy who becomes a man very fast thanks to the experiences of war. Kevin recently shot the role of Callum MacPherson in Robert Carlyle's The Legend of Barney Thomson with Ray Winstone and Emma Thompson, which opened the Edinburgh Film Festival this year.


Agyness Deyn - Chris Guthrie
Peter Mullan - John Guthrie
Kevin Guthrie  - Ewan Tavendale

Written and Directed by Terence Davies
Producer Roy Boulter
Producer Sol Papadopoulos
Producer Nicolas Steil
Co-Executive Producer Alice de Sousa
Executive Producer Bob Last
Director of Photography Michael McDonough A.S.C.
Edited by David Charap
Line Producer     Victoria Dabbs
Production Designer Andy Harris
Art Direction by Margaret Horspool
Diana van de Vossenberg
Set Decoration by Sylvia Kasel
Composer Gast Waltzing
Costume Designer Uli Simon
Makeup Designer  Katja Reinert
Makeup by Delia Letham
Jacqui Mallett
Michele Perry
Jasmine Schmit
Sound Recordist Marc Thill

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