The latest film from the great English auteur Terence Davies, Sunset Song promised much and delivered disappointment. The prospect of this film excited me for several reasons. Not only did Terence Davies direct my favourite English language film The Long Day Closes (1992), a visual tour de force with a flooring narrative, he has also proved consistent in the new millennium. The 3 films he directed prior to Sunset Song all maintain the quality I have come to expect from Davies, both in form and substance. Only adding to my expectations was the fact that this film is adapting a highly respected, and in my opinion good, Scottish novel of the same name. Essentially I was expecting a masterpiece.
But that was far from what I got.
From the early stages of the film, something felt wrong, and the more I watched it became obvious that this was because the film was overly sentimental. The music was the first hint: overblown orchestral swells that felt like they were lifted straight from Tales from Earthsea (2006), and songs reminiscent of the worst of The Corrs. Soon the acting showed the same faults: the central performance felt like something out of Ertem Egilmez’s not so classic Arabesk (1989). Finally the cinematography, the one department that Davies has always been at the top of his game in, proved to have similar issues. This film was particularly disappointing for me as I hold some of Davies’ other visual work in the highest esteem.
Another major problem with Sunset Song is its length (2.5hrs). I would not normally have a problem getting through a film this long in one sitting, but it was certainly a challenge this time. This was partially due to the saccharine flavour soaking through every scene, but also because this is the longest film Davies has directed (though admittedly The House of Mirth (2000) is only 10 minutes shorter). Many of the scenes are dragged out much longer than they should have been without adding much to the technical or narrative merits of the film.
This is not to say the film is entirely without redeeming features. The script is good, especially towards the end, and Terence Davies’ direction at times shines through as it did in his earlier work. The cinematography also occasionally overcomes tone to create wonderful shots (such as those of Stonehenge), but shots worthy of The Long Day Closes are few and far between in Sunset Song.
As a whole the film is probably still above average, but highly flawed. My main problem with Sunset Song is that it is saccharine. The visuals are saccharine, the music is saccharine, even the performances are saccharine. The film was a major disappointment and has severely dented my esteem of Davies’ oeuvre, but is not all bad. It is probable that Davies was just the wrong director to handle such a project (despite it being a passion project for him). However I strongly believe, in answer to the question posed by the title, that this is a mere misstep in Davies’ career. Let's hope I'm right...
Sunset Song is screening at the Sydney Film Festival, 8-19 June 2016. A 6-film pass is available to students for $72 + booking fee, or single tickets are $19.90 + booking fee.