Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song is a crushingly beautiful book that every socialist should read. Terence Davies’s beautiful film adaptation does the novel full justice.
Set in rural north east Scotland around the outbreak of the First World War, it couples a brutal realism — of back-breaking labour, women’s oppression and the devastation of war — with an incredible sense of the moments of beauty in life.
Without any rose-tint or glorification, it celebrates a spirit of strength and resistance. Protagonist Chris Guthrie is someone to think of in those moments when the weight of oppression threatens to overwhelm. She simply refuses to be broken, in spite of her tyrannical, abusive father, her mother tragically crushed by a life of suffering, endless pregnancies and childbirth, and her lover who turns violently on her, warped and twisted by the horrors of the war.
Davies captures brilliantly the source of strength that the wild landscape provides for Chris, grounding her against the ruthless string of tragic injustices in her life. Watching the film is a rich experience, where sounds, colours and the atmosphere of the land shine through.
Chae, a land labourer who enlists, returns on leave devastated to see the changes the war is inflicting on crofting life in Kinraddie. The forests, critical to the local ecosystem, have been cut down to send wood for the war effort. It’s a story of the destruction of a way of life.
The film is shot as a series of contained scenes moving through key points in the plot. The intensity of the performances, particularly the ability of actor Agyness Deyn to get across Chris’s fiercely strong sense of self, is to the film’s credit. Peter Mullen chillingly captures Chris’s brutish father. But he manages to portray the sadness in him too, a human brutalised by a life of drudgery and strict religion. The most painful moments with Chris’s father, and Ewan, her lover, don’t shy away from the injustice of women’s oppression. In unbearable scenes they bully to exert power. But her calm defiance wins out. The conclusion sees them both broken, tormented victims of a system of exploitation, war and death.
But the wonder of Sunset Song, film and book alike, is that it’s uplifting. It’s not all dour realism. It does not crudely reduce working class people’s daily struggle to misery. Threaded through is a sharp, knowing humour and a powerful resilience. The sense of “Us” and “Them” is never far from view.
Davies indicated that he doesn’t understand the modern world, preferring a romantic version “that doesn’t quite exist any more”. But the story is so much more than nostalgia. Grassic Gibbon was a socialist. Sunset Song flew in the face of prevailing ideas when it was written in 1932 — on women’s sexuality, abuse, hatred for the rich and powerful and the stranglehold of the church.
Sunset Song is about the brutal cruelty of capitalism. But more than that it is about the defiance of working class people. It’s good to have a film that brings a brilliant book and its challenge to a system of oppression, exploitation and war a to a fresh audience. This film does that very well.