I’ve heard the liltin at oor yowe-milkin,
Lassies a-liltin before break o day
Now there’s a moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers o the Forest are a’ wede awa
. . .
We hear nae mair liltin at oor yowe-milkin
Women and bairnies are heartless and wae
Sighin and moanin on ilka green loanin –
The Flooers of the Forest are a’ wede awa
From “The Flooers of the Forest” (read in full and/or listen to the song here.)
At the center of Terence Davies’s new film, Sunset Song, adapted from Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 book of the same title, is a wedding. It is a modest affair, a barn for its stage, humble farming folk its participants. It is a celebration of love, a communal joyful gathering, a candle-bright warm pocket in the middle of a dark, snowy New Year’s Eve. And when the bride, Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), sees the barn, prepared by her friends, she says, delighted, “It is like a picture book.” And it is.
In the midst of the merriment, the company calls for a song from the bride, and she sits at their center and sings. It is a sunset song, glowing in the deep colors of grief for the day that has gone, a song for the dead, a song of mourners. It is “Flooers of the Forest,” traditionally a tune played by pipers to commemorate those Scots lost in battle. A strange choice, it might seem at first, for a wedding, but a choice that gets at the heart of this story, this place, this people, and at the heart of Chris herself. A mournful song is itself a thing of intrinsic paradox: the beauty of its words or music sit, impossibly, within the grief. The song might seem, to a strictly literal mind, to devalue the grief by the very beauty, and yet it is not a devaluation. The grief itself is more grievous, the deeper the beauty of the song. And so such a song defies the intellect, bowing to mystery.
Sunset Song queries this mystery and embraces it, and giving oneself over to the story is a bit like giving up a part of one’s rational self. Chris’s journey is, in part, a facing of herself and her own impossible complexities, looking square in her bedroom mirror at her body’s naked vulnerability and naked strength, and seeing the “two Chrissies that fought for her heart.” One Chrissie is a young woman who loves learning and excels at French and English in school, who looks towards a life away from uncouth provincial Scotland. The other Chrissie is a Scottish lass who loves the “peewits crying across the hills,” “the smell of the earth in her face,” her home, her family. As the story moves on, we see her more and more turning to her Scottish heart and to the land. Ancient Stonehenge-like rocks sit in an immovable circle, implacable pieces of the land, crossing our vision twice in the film, uncommented on, needing no commentary, weights in the mind. The film opens, too, on wheat fields in their blonde glory, with the songs of their birds, the rustle of stalks. That vision of wheat and stone takes on a primacy nothing replaces, and Chris is at its center.
But for Chris the land is not simply uncomplicated beauty and ancient worship; her home is embedded in this land, and in this home, whose windows always face out to the land, ever letting it in, is the rule of a harsh, domineering father, John Guthrie (Peter Mullan) – unyielding as Scottish rock – a man who claims his wife’s and his children’s bodies as his own. “You’re my flesh and blood. I can do with you what I will,” he tells Chris, and he says the same in his action to his wife, whose screams through the bedroom walls mean either rape or childbirth, depending on the day. Will (Jack Greenlees), the eldest Guthrie son, and his body suffer, too, at the hands of this patriarch, and Chris weeps over his bloodied back, her hands hovering over and caressing the horror.
Within the home, then, is an unbearable thing, and yet because of the horror, the deepest of bonds grow between brother and sister, mother and daughter, unbreakable even when severed by death or by absence, however much that loss rends the heart. When the brother leaves, we follow him, framed through the house window, and whatever the day, his figure will always leave its impression there. The windows of the home hold the view – the land, the family, entwined. We return to these windows, looking out to the land – again and again, and each time they fill more and more, through the soft or streaming light of her Scotland, with Chris’s memories, emotions, and sense of self.
The paradoxes of self and of home, place of great love and great grief, play out in Davies’s stylistic choices as much as in the characters and their actions. Characters, Chris in particular, regularly look directly into the camera, and long held, static camera shots lend a stage-like quality to a number of scenes, such shots embracing an almost Brechtian approach, calling attention to the set, the players, the proscenium-like framings. When John Guthrie beats his son, Will faces the camera, flinching at each stroke of the belt, at the contact we cannot see, and the camera remains static throughout. The scene ends when the actors leave the frame. We are left, looking at the empty barn, the stage. Or, throughout, the camera repeatedly rests on another the empty set: the Guthrie home spaces, windows, kitchen table, chairs, the parlor, the space at times slowly filling with light, as if with a spotlight, a sun simulation. This is not realism – or what we conceive of as realism in film – and yet the distancing serves only to draw us closer, to the son and his suffering, to the emotional power of the house as the Guthrie home.
Like the stylistic choices with the camera and the set, Davies also chooses to use potentially distancing narration, Chris offering us her thoughts and heart, a third person description of herself. Narration is, by definition, a kind of distance, someone telling us about a thing removed in time or space. Narration takes us out of the direct action, and Chris, speaking in third person about herself, rather than first, can potentially further distance us from the immediacy of her experience. Davies, however, with this use of third person to describe present action, makes the narrative voice atemporal, and in this dissonance, we feel, at once, we are in a kind of immediate, limited present perspective as well as in a more omniscient future perspective. Chris’s voice is both rooted in the moments we see before us – it is clear she does not understand or see all ramifications of present actions – but she also speaks from a future perspective that is looking, observationally, back on the past. “Things are better,” she narrates, confidently, the moment before we hear the shout, “Britain’s at war with Germany!” She believed it at that moment – so much so that her narration of the future, even then knowing war would be coming, affirms the moment of “better things” as an eternal thing that will continue to be declared in perpetuity.
The effect is Wordsworthian, a sort of “emotion recollected in tranquility,” the emotion, the thought, and the visuals so powerful that they feel entirely of the moment even while the narrator is removed from the action and reflecting back on it. In the same way that Wordworth’s “golden daffodils” are forever dancing their “sprightly” dance, an eternal present described in the past tense, Chris’s life is the same, through the lens of her narratival perspective: it is happening and has happened, simultaneously.
Sunset Song, in the end, is an affirmation of being, a kind of ontological statement, presenting to us, in the form of Chris Guthrie and her land and her people, an embrace of the paradoxes of being and feeling: sorrow, joy, beauty, ugliness, life, death, the vile, the transcendent, the eternal, the temporal. One Chrissie says, “I hate the land”; one Chrissie says, “I love the sweetness of the Scottish lands and skies.” She says, as she strokes her brother’s back, “There are lovely things in the world,” and in the bloody mess, we see the loveliness, Chris’s delicate long fingers and their tenderness. Chris can say, “As the land changed, so did Chris .” She can say, “[N]othing endured by the land . . . Folk are but a breath . . . but she felt she was the land.” The changing land the changing self are as enduring as unchanging rock.
In the war ravaged, utterly changed land of France though, the Scottish boys, snatched, in the film’s story, from their homes and families, seem to have vanished without a trace, the ancient stone of their heritage and their land very far away. The camera’s aerial view picks out in the raw mud only a stray boot here, a shredded piece of uniform there. “Earth!”, cries the poet Isaac Rosenberg, a bard of the Great War, “have they gone into you! / Somewhere they must have gone, / And flung on your hard back / Is their soul’s sack / Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.” A breath. Gone, in the muddied gaping earth.
But the rain stops, and the light shines again on the little table in the Guthrie house, and boy-men, lost in a foreign land and forever changed, reside in the hearts of the Scottish women who are the land and who sing their song and have always sung it.
“Highlandman McIvor tuned up his pipes and began to step slow round the stone circle by Blwearie Loch, slow and quiet, and folk watched him, the dark was near, it lifted your hair and was eerie and uncanny, the Flowers of the Forest as he played it . . . And syne folk saw that the dark had come and began to stream down the hill, leaving [Chris] there . . . [T]hey’d the last of the light with them up there, and maybe they didn’t need it or heed it, you can do without the day if you’ve a lamp quiet-lighted and kind in your heart.”
~ Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon