16-year-old Chris Guthrie lives with her parents and siblings on a farm in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in the early 1900’s just before World War 1. Despite her humble background, she’s a star pupil at school and in an early scene, walking down a country lane with a girlfriend; she reveals she dreams of become a schoolteacher. But this is not to be.
Chris’ father, John is a strict, inflexible pig-headed Presbyterian who demands and expects total obedience from his wife and children. Chris and her older brother Will form a kind of united front, listening in dismay as they overhear John forcing himself on wife Jean as she protests she can’t handle another pregnancy. Jean does indeed become pregnant with twins, and the family moves to a larger farmstead called Blawearie in a scenic valley, where Chris enjoys the views even as she works tirelessly and heroically.
When Will jokingly gives the name Jehovah to a newly born horse, John is enraged by what he sees as blasphemy and beats his son mercilessly. Their mother bears a second set of twins, but in despair kills herself and her two babies. These events eventually prompt Will’s departure overseas, abandoning Chris
The older twin siblings are sent to live with relatives and it t becomes apparent to Chris that existence with her father will be one of drudgery, danger and sexual abuse. He sees her as his flesh and blood — he has the right to do with her as he pleases. Chris manages to escape his drunken advances and, after John suffers a stroke, the man declines rapidly. Chris inherits the farm and feels a momentary sense of peace and empowerment.
Despite many obstacles, Chris thrives on the farm and begins a seemingly happy marriage with her brother’s gentle friend Ewan. After their elaborate wedding, paid for with part of Chris’ inheritance, the young couple seems deliriously happy, constantly kissing and enjoying daily chores. It seems that Chris has indeed managed to escape the life of lovelessness and brutality that seemed to be her lot. She has Ewan’s child and manages the farm, and relishes her husband’s affection and respect.
Then war comes. After much soul-searching, friends convince Ewan that he should enlist to fight in the war -nationalistic fervour. After seeing the horrors of war, he comes back a totally changed and hardened man.
I found the performances intensely moving and highly plausible. There was no attempt made to soft-soap the rugged uncompromising life of a Scottish farming community before the first war. Life was hard and often brutal. Childbirth is depicted in all its raw brutality.
Sunset Song is visually stunning, with many great shots of the Scottish farming landscape. I noted in the credits that many of the external farming shots were filmed in New Zealand because of the inconsistent weather in Scotland.
There is a voice-over running throughout the film. I wondered if it is Chris’ reflections and ruminations of a futile life, or of her Mother’s aspirations and reflections for her daughter?
This film will divide audiences because the pace is slow. Glacially slow at times, but definitely not boring. I loved it.
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