Sunset Song is Terence Davies’s touching epic of love, hope, and tragedy at the dawn of the Great War. The story centers on a young woman, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), and the hardship of living in rural Scotland at the time, while looking at the themes of patriarchal and dysfunctional family life whose exploration originally hailed Davies as an auteur.
Fernando F. Croce, covering the film for the Notebook, wrote from Toronto:
"A passion project for the great British filmmaker with a decade-long production history of false starts, this adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 Scottish novel emerges as a full-bodied reverie of faces and landscapes, splendor and pain."
We talked to Terence Davies following the world premiere of Sunset Song at the Toronto International Film Festival. This conversation contains spoilers of the film’s story.
NOTEBOOK: What made you interested in this novel? How did it fit with your personality as a filmmaker?
TERENCE DAVIES: What I liked about it was that for all of the trauma that triggers Chris, she doesn’t lose her hope. She comes very near to it but she doesn’t lose it. That’s why I think human beings are so extraordinary—we have the capacity to hope. Other animals don’t have that but we do. The sense of forgiveness for all suffering is one of the hardest. It’s very difficult to forgive when you’ve been personally injured, like when her husband was killed. That’s very, very hard, but she forgives. By that forgiveness, we know that she has the most hope.
NOTEBOOK: Sunset Song is an adaptation of a book with a large scope. How were you challenged to make a movie out of the novel?
TERENCE DAVIES: When you make a movie from a novel, you very often have to change it in order to get its essence, the spirit of a novel. I mean, if you look at David Lean’s Oliver Twist, the whole sequence in the beginning of Oliver Twist is completely invented. Its actualities are true of greater proportions. They’re not there but you believe that again. What you’ve got to try and do is take those elements and keep them in the spirit of the book whilst making it cinematic. That is the simple thing. And you’ve got to tell a story. Who is it about? What happened? What is the end? What is the denouement? Or the only other way you could tell a story is to begin with the main thought and the rest of the film tells you why you got there. Those are the only two ways to tell the story.
NOTEBOOK: In the movie we see a very close connection between Chris and her older brother, and we realize that she has very deep sympathy for her family. However, as the story progresses we see Chris’s younger twin brothers leave her in order to be with their uncle. We also see that the older brother leave Chris for an unknown reason. We never learn anything more about what happened to them for the rest of the movie. Given the close connection between family members, I’m curious: why did the movie not mention the fate of the twins or the older brother?
DAVIES: This is because that would just simply admit that the narrative is too desperate. It’s enough that he leaves. It’s enough that the two boys left. You can’t go down that narrative alley because it leads nowhere. You know, we had more scenes where there were explanations about why her brother left but it became clumsy. We would be trying to explain something which would then become another narrative strand and that really wasn’t needed.
NOTEBOOK: This explains your narrative strategy. For example, at certain moments I wanted to know why Chris did not show any sense of guilt for her active role in her father’s death. He was ill and needed her help but she refused to open the door. Are not interested in psychological explanations in your work?
DAVIES: Well, it’s a mixture of things. Sometimes you want it made explicit and other times you want it to be ambiguous. The problem with ambiguity is that it can just be confusing. We don’t know what it means. But I wanted to keep that open and ambiguous because I believe that film is most like music. For example, Stravinsky best does what you can do in most films. It is best exemplified in his wonderful tunes. The reason why you remember them is because you want him to use it again, and he refuses to do so. You can do that with films, just drop a little bit of information with the audience so they can work it out. Otherwise, the audience just becomes passive. The audience has to look and interpret what they look at. They have to interpret the ambiguity that arises between the shots. If they don’t do that then either they hate the film or you have failed as a filmmaker.
NOTEBOOK: Given this line of logic, can we argue that there is no central theme or character in the movie? We have already discussed the character development but in terms of structure, the movie is very organic. For example, the beginning concentrates on patriarchy and its impact on the life of Chris, so one could read it as a feminist piece. However, this changes as the movie progresses and the plot focuses on the war, the church and its dogma, and its impact on our relationships with other humans.
DAVIES: Yes, because they react, obviously. The characters interact with other people and that changes them too. But what is horrible here was that the church, which was very powerful, actually told them to go out and kill other people. That really is horrific. You can’t isolate any of those things because they are all interacting together. If you think of it as music, you know, it would be statement, development, recapitulation. That’s the classic sonata form and that’s what you do. This is what it’s about. This is how it is developed. This is how it is ended. But it has to have that organic structure and it’s got to grow into that.
NOTEBOOK: In this organic process, I observed your very keen interest in the notion of place and its meaning, how its attributed meaning changes over time, and how humans adjust to this change. One can argue that the central character of Sunset Song is not a human but actually a place.
DAVIES: A very true observation, it’s very much about a place because the countryside and the seasons are characters of their own and they regulate your life. We don’t know the most result of it. Our contemporary lives are not regulated by the seasons but rather by the clock and how we are allowed to go in to our jobs at nine or ten o’clock in the morning and to finish at three o’clock in the afternoon. But in a way that is a false conception of time. If you look back to the medieval period then you see that every single hour of the day was regulated by what you had to do. I mean, you started early in the morning because that’s when the light began and you stopped when the light ended; you had no other option. The story has this constant reference to the land, a constant reference to the seasons, and how they affect people. I wanted to go back in and show how rugged that countryside is. It’s beautiful but it’s also harsh. It’s not easy. It’s not an easy place to farm.
NOTEBOOK: There is a very shocking and touching scene in the movie when the violent and psychotic father has a stroke. Where did you get the idea for that scene?
DAVIES: Oh, this was not so much a matter of inspiration as it was from personal experience. That’s the way it is in the book but regarding the father’s personality, my father was psychotic and very violent. You know, you didn’t know when he was going to attack you or anyone else and that’s terrifying. He really was psychotic, so I know what that was like because I experienced it; that was direct experience.
NOTEBOOK: There are also very beautiful representations of eroticism in the movie. In one particular scene, we see the man in the stable touch Chris’s legs and then we see her naked in front of the mirror. The next scene shows her having a conversation with a man who may be her future husband. These three scenes are beautifully juxtaposed and create a very erotic moment. Here you did not represent sex very directly, but you tried using the imagination.
DAVIES: When you’re that young—she’s only 14 or 15—you’re not sure what’s happening to your body, especially when it comes to things that no one has told you about. I mean, when I was growing up in the fifties nobody told you then either, and you had these changes in your body without being sure what they were. You think to yourself, “Have I got a disease?” There was no one to tell me anything and that it’s just a natural thing that happened to me. I have four brothers who did not tell me anything. The main character lives in the same situation. She is still unaware of her life and body but when this comes out of the blue it’s intriguing but it’s also frightening. In the touching scene in the stable Chris asks herself, what is he doing? And there is this part of her that knows what he’s doing but she’s too naive to really know. Then she moves out and it gives her the impetus to think “Well, there must be something in me that made him do this. I should look for it.” She still doesn’t know what it is. Being in that position where you don’t know what’s happening to your body is frightening, especially if no one tells you.
NOTEBOOK: I thought this juxtaposition particularly painterly. Was this or any other part of the film inspired by specific painters?
DAVIES: This erotic scene was not inspired by any painter but the general interior look was based on a Danish painter named Hammershøi, who died in 1917. His interiors are very strange. They’re kind of soft and faded and usually have open doors and windows but with nobody in them. Or if there is one then it’s a woman and she’s always got her back to the viewer. They’re very strange but they’re very beautiful. That was what I based the interior look upon.
NOTEBOOK: Most of the characters are typical and when you look at their faces you can understand how they might behave. For example, Chris’s face very clearly expresses the way that she feels and behaves. However, this is not true of the husband, Ewan. When we look at his face, we are not sure what type of character he is. I could hardly imagine the tragic ending of his life. Do you have anything to say about this?
DAVIES: That was not a conscious part of it. I cast him because I thought he was right for role. It’s as simple as that. Very boring answer, I know, but I cast him because he was right. In general, I don’t care whether the actors are well-known or completely unknown. I cast the people who I think are right. When the unknowns are concerned, I'll fight for that and will always say “No, it’s him, it’s her.”
NOTEBOOK: And I guess this applies as well to Agyness Deyn, who plays Chris.
DAVIES: She was introduced by the producer who started doing casting before me. At that time I knew nothing of her involvement in popular culture and had no idea that she was a big model. In this case, she was the first to come in on a Monday morning and it was clear to me that she was good for the role, so I told to my producers that we had found her.
NOTEBOOK: What will be your next project?
DAVIES: I’m working on a film based on the life of the marvelous poet Emily Dickinson.