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quinta-feira, 3 de dezembro de 2015
Sunset Song review: 'a heartbreaking disappointment'
Terence Davies's long-cherished adaptation of a classic Scottish novel strains too hard to succeed
Sunset Song, a stern and windswept adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scottish novel, has been such a long-cherished project for Terence Davies he deserves at least two cheers just for getting it off his back. Soon after The House of Mirth (2000) – one of his most radiantly sad and well-realised films – he nearly got a script into production, but the financing fell through, leaving him even more than usually despondent about the uphill slog of independent film funding in Britain.
Given Davies’s dedication to the task, what everyone would love to hear is that the Sunset Song he’s finally been allowed to make, just unveiled in Toronto, is a triumph, a vindication and a masterpiece. With a heavy heart, expectations simply have to be docked.
There are gorgeous things about it, there’s one really good performance, and reminders of Davies’ transcendent style ripple through the film. But it also feels broken and cumbersome, weighed down by a number of decisions that simply don’t work. It strains to sing to us and frequently sounds hoarse.
Agyness Deyn, the ex-model breaking out step by step into films, gets easily her most taxing assignment to date in the role of Chris Guthrie, the young resident of Gibbon’s fictional Kinraddie, something close to a Scottish Wessex. The first hour charts her farmhouse upbringing, under a tyrannical father (Peter Mullan) and whimpering mother (Daniela Nardini) who keeps giving birth to new siblings.
Mullan’s psycho-dad routine, after the likes of Neds and Top of the Lake, is getting a bit shopworn by now: there’s absolutely no shock or surprise to this role the second we see who’s playing it. Despite her very creditable accent work, Deyn fails to kickstart her case for Chris being the centre of our attention: except during passages of purple literary voiceover, she’s mainly just standing around while family crises erupt, such as the whipping of her brother Will (strapping Jack Greenlees) by their father. This is conveyed in a beautifully composed frontal shot, lasting several minutes, which risks overaestheticising the young man’s pain.
The turning of the seasons, in the years leading up to the First World War, is more or less exactly as beautiful as you would expect Davies to make it. Cinematographer Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone) lets the camera glide through magic-hour-magicked corn fields, before a genuinely spine-tingling shift to wintry whites, and fills the frame grandiloquently with brooding expanses of sky.
Davies perhaps has half a mind on what his near-namesake Terrence Malick achieved in Days of Heaven, in terms of imbuing this terrain with a mythic and indomitable power: “Nothing endured but the land,” Chris orates, late on.
Engagement picks up steeply as soon as Chris meets Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a doughty farmer lad who falls for her at first sight. He’s introduced sitting in a pub, in a simple, heroic close-up which tells us exactly how important this character is going to be.
Deyn’s glacial beauty gives McDonough plenty to work with, but it’s Guthrie, with his puckish features, wide brown eyes and sparky affability, who jolts the film to life. The scene of Chris’s labour, as loud and agonising as the ones her own mother went through, plays out entirely on her now husband’s panicked, desperate features as he paces downstairs – a marvellously instinctive acting job, and the peak of this performance. He brings out the best in Deyn, too, who loosens up for this middle innings and starts to feel more like a relatable person.
You’re hoping that the film has clambered over its rocky start, squaring up for an ending, following Ewan’s conscription to the Western Front, which ought to be a three-hankie Davies wipe-out. Perhaps the saddest thing, then, is the lurching quality of Sunset Song’s last dramatic shifts. There’s something reductively depressing about the violent sea change that comes over Ewan, when he’s briefly back from soldiering.
It feels much less psychologically convincing than the equivalent Kit Harington homecoming in Testament of Youth, for instance. From his very earliest screen memoirs, Davies has returned again and again to the subject of patriarchal oppression, but do all the men in his films have to turn into Peter Mullan?
Not a fully persuasive actress yet, Deyn is overtaxed by what her character is eventually made to go through, and her weakest scene in the film is the one that ought to be its single most moving. Instead, a long and quintessentially grave Davies fly-by over the mud and debris of No-Man’s-Land, and then a gruffly emotive, majestically lit scene between Ewan and one of his comrades, are the best things to salvage from this wobbly third act. Sunset Song is only very intermittently Davies at his best, and the disappointment of finding this out is the real heartbreak.