Terence Davies’ first film since The Deep Blue Sea is Sunset Song, an adaptation of the first part of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, a staple of Scottish Modernism that examines the state of the country and its sense of national identity in the early twentieth century. This first volume introduces Chris Guthrie (Aygness Denn), a young woman growing up in Aberdeenshire, and follows her progress from reckoning with her tyrannical father John (Peter Mullan), to gaining her independence, to marrying local farmer Ewan Taverdale (Kevin Guthrie), to gaining a new kind of independence when he is shot for desertion during the First World War. From the outset it’s clear that Davies loves the novel, and feels a deep affinity with Gibbon’s words, as his script lapses in and out of dialect, quotes extensive passages from the novel, and treads a fine line between linear and impressionistic depictions of time passing, all of which allow him to capture the broader shape of the novel and trilogy while being fairly selective about the details that he does include. From the outset, too, it’s clear that this is a much more expansive story than anything else in Davies’ canon, as we’re introduced to Chris against a series of enormous, expansive, placid landscapes – especially the perennial shots of wind in wheat – that gather everything into their pastoral ambience, and suffuse every outdoor scene with an enduring sense of peace.
Those backdrops are all the more noticeable in that the first act of the film is fairly brutal, dealing with the impact on Chris, her family, and especially her mother, of an alcoholic father who has nothing to give but rage: “You’re my flesh and blood and I can do with you what I like.” Much of these opening scenes focus on the strains placed on the Catholic mother’s body, from a series of harrowing childbirth scenes, to some fairly frank depictions of rape in marriage, and the normality of rape in marriage at this time, with the result that the best wisdom that Chris’ mother can offer is to brace herself for this patriarchal blight: “You have to face men for yourself – when the time comes, there’s no one can stand and help you.” While the events of the film might be somewhat removed from Davies’ Liverpool childhood, these sequences feel more autobiographical than anything else in his career, focusing on situations so horrific and traumatic that they perhaps need to be deflected through Gibbon’s novel in order to be visualized in such graphic and frank detail. One by one, the members of Chris’ family either die or move away – her mother commits suicide – leaving her alone with her father, at which point the film starts to resemble Davies’ regular syntax more closely. Not only do the exterior shots diminish, but the voids and gaps between interior fixture grow bigger and dimmer, more looming and abstracted, until the Aberdeenshire house is condensed to its windows, which both promise and thwart escape.
What makes this so different form Davies’ other visions of domestic confinement, however, is that Chris never loses her sense of the world beyond her four walls, as much as the film might momentarily deny it to her. In large part, that’s because she starts from a greater point of sensuous immersion and sensuous self-awareness – and a more expansively sensuous sense of herself – than any of Davies’ other characters, as well as most other women depicted in modernist fiction at this time. Set against a filmic backdrop that is quite frank about sexuality, she has a heightened proprioception of her body and environs at all times, resulting in moments of sensuous communion even in the midst of her ongoing travails with her father. Indeed, so great are these moment of sensory communion that her body quickly becomes a vehicle for the sensory profusion of the Scottish landscape itself, a surface across which the vistas of wheat, water and sky are continually mediated and modulated. So profound is this connection, too, that is never feels inherently oppositional, or like a strategy of defying her father (although it does defy her father), but an intrinsic pleasure in and of itself, just as Chris is never quite presented as meek or self-sacrificing, but never quite credits her father enough to set herself up in direct opposition to his will either.
Instead, Chris’ pleasure, and Gibbon’s vision, seems to epitomise what Davies has searched for throughout his entire body of work – a form of pleasure that is opposed to patriarchal blight, but that doesn’t have to define itself against patriarchal blight either. In other words, a form of pleasure too intense to be contained by patriarchal blight, resulting in the most expansive and optimistic film in Davies’ entire body of work. While his signature is still silence, Chris’ silence is very different from the silences of his other films, especially once her father passes away, she inherits the farm, and then starts her romance with Ewan. Rather than convey repression, or oppression, Chris’ silence suggests sensory satiation, and a sensuous awareness so profound that silence is the best way to express it, since language can only contain it. The result is a period drama that is sensuously aware and generous as any film set in the present day – possibly more so – as Chris’ receptiveness to the full sensorium of the Scottish landscape turns her into a figurehead for the country as a whole. Among other things, that allows Davies to situate Chris, and the film, in the elastic space between third person narration and stream of consciousness, much like the novel itself, which frames modernism as an extension of realism, rather than a repudiation of realism.
More generally, Davies’ vision is true to the peculiar focus of Scottish modernism on women’s lives and rural environments – ingredients that were often left behind by modernism, or perceived as too indebted to realism for modernists to work into their own largely urbane, masculinist exercises. While Sunset Song may brim with the sense of another world beyond the rural Scottish landscape, it also brims with a deeper and more sensuous world that can be found within that landscape, as rural bliss is – somewhat provocatively – inflected through modernist mores, making these pastoral scenes feel as urbane as any urban narrative. Accordingly, Chris’ body language becomes more blissful and reposed as her life proceeds, especially once she marries Ewan, while the film itself feels unbelievably cathartic – like a warm bath – after the bleakness and melancholy of Davies’ previous films. As the silence becomes more joyous and more pregnant with sensuous satiation, a sense of finitude falls over the action – an awareness of the cosmic scale of the landscape, and even the cosmic indifference of the landscape – but in ways that deepen the profundity of the present moment, and cut against the elliptical claustrophobia of Davies’ regular style. All of that coalesces around Chris and Ewan’s wedding, the serene and sublime heart of the film, which fuses tradition and futurity in the name of Scottish modernism, as a nymph-like song from Chris marks the start of the new year, and a rendition of Auld Lang Syne leads into an ethereally otherworldly wedding night: “not like waiting for a dream, but going into one.”
That makes the second act of the film quite unusual, dramatically, in that there is no real tension or conflict – just an intensifying and deepening serenity that is all the more resonant for the abrasive violence of the opening scenes, and the dejection and melancholy of Davies’ filmography as a whole. Beyond a certain point, that serenity subsumes the temporality of the film as well, since sometimes it seems as if a long period of time has passed, only for Davies to simply cut to the next moment, while sometimes it seems as if Davies has simply to for the next moment, only for a significant amount of time to have elapsed. After a while, every shift in time feels both specific and cosmic, which not only embeds Chris’ story within the wider the landscape around her, but allows the film to capture the expansive sweep of the book, and even the trilogy, within one narrative. At its most abstract, Davies’ scenes don’t seem to tell a story, or even depict a place, but simply breathe the landscape in and out, just as Chris’ character is gradually condensed to long, still shots of her breathing, especially the deep breaths just before sensuous communion. In a very real sense, the sensuality of breath is both the subject matter and medium of the film, which stops ramifying as a narrative, or as a series of characters, in this second act, and instead outlines a series of rituals, while forming a ritualistic observance of the novel itself.
While you can’t begrudge Chris her happiness, and can’t begrudge Davies this serenity after the dim melancholy of so much of his career, it’s also not hard to see why critics found this second act a little bit interminable – ethereally interminable, but interminable nonetheless – not least because this is the longest film in Davies’ catalogue by a significant margin. Whereas the remainder of Gibbon’s trilogy goes on to detail Chris’ life and education, it feels as if Davies would be content to remain in this serene landscape forever, whose ripeness is always on the verge of going rotten, but somehow just keeps getting riper, distilling the film into more and more rarefied planes of joy. Within that context, the arrival of World War I, and the community’s persecution of Ewan for not fighting, plays as the mechanism needed for Davies to spring back into narrative action as much as an historical event in itself, as Chris and Ewan’s pastoral self-containment reaches breaking-point, and in fact turns them against the pastoral community that once sequestered and sustained them.
The film now comes full circle, as Davies – like Gibbon – sides firmly with Chris, Ewan and the other characters who don’t want to go to war, or who don’t see why war should be invoked in their particular community. The modernist fixation with the urbane, and with the world outside the rural hamlet, is now associated with a military-industrial imperative that ensures that, when Ewan does finally fight, and return from fighting, he has been transformed into a replica of the patriarchal blight that consumed Chris’ father. From the moment he returns on furlough he is a different person, promulgating a more conservative and artificial Scottish nationalism – he affects highland gear and a highland accent – that makes Chris’ connection to the land and to the spirit of her community feel even more vital, as well as tacitly lambasting the complicity of modernism, nationalism and fascism in the masculinist works of urban prose fiction that Gibbon was partly defining himself against. The transformation is all the more powerful in that the film never provides a single reason for Ewan’s change, instead subsuming every possible explanation into an urbane modernist affectation that sees Chris long, somewhat perversely, for her parents and their Scots lexicon.
Once again, then, World War I is a principle of isolation in Davies’ work, as it becomes clear that Sunset Song isn’t a reprieve from his historical and autobiographical world so much as a myth of origins. Yet Sunset Song also seems keener to traverse that world than any of his other works, since even when Chris suffers the most horrible repetition of her mother’s fate – rape in marriage at the hands of a husband who once loved her – she manages to recover some of the expansive and burnished sensuality of the opening scenes, and the second act in particular. Even the horrific spectacle and fact of Ewan being executed as a deserter is absorbed back into a slow pan over the battlefield that then segues to Chris embracing her husband’s uniform before going out to commune with the standing stones, as if to evoke a more abiding national sentiment – at once too traditional and too visionary for regular modernism – that cuts against his self-defeating machismo. For such a long film, then, the ending is quite elliptical, anticipating both the joys and the sorrows of A Quiet Passion, even as it works very much on its own terms too, as the most panoramic and cathartic vision of his life and work that Davies has ever committed to the cinematic screen.