“You’d make a find lad, Chris” a mother kids her tall, strong-backed daughter Christine in Sunset Song. But Sunset Song isn’t about gender confusion or fluidity. Gay director Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes) beautifully appreciates what all genders have in common and so has made a film that is a deeply moving masterpiece of empathy. The heterosexual story of Christine Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) growing up in rural Scotland just before World War I, defying her brutish father and marrying ardent Scotsman Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), who looks up to her yet fulfills her romantic needs, is not just universal. It benefits from the humane insight that Davies has learned through his own gay experience. There isn’t likely to be a better movie this year.
Before you frown at the idea of a gay director telling a “straight” story, understand that Davies’s superb filmmaking is not at all “straight” in a conventional sense. As one of Great Britain’s very best directors, Davies is also a first-rate, rule-breaking, formally-bold cineaste. Young Chris’s story is told with visionary richness and daring time lapses that, at this point in Davies’s career, are no longer experimental but the unabashed expression of a bold and refined sensibility.
If it’s OK for Pedro Almodovar to make movies that light-heartedly partake of women’s issues and share attraction to handsome, dangerous men (All About My Mother, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Talk to Her, Law of Desire) notice how Davies uses that same license to show the way Chris responds to her culture’s patriarchy: She sees it for what it is then goes forward, independently—which doesn’t reduce her optimism or her portion of trouble. Chris is pre-Feminist and also classically humane. Lanky but with ladylike fierceness, Deyn recalls Katherine Hepburn in her early 1930s English heroine roles only minus young Hepburn’s flibbertigibbet sass. (“You never know,” Chris winks at life.)
Sunset Song, which Davies has struggled years to make, is part of the extraordinary tradition of gay male filmmakers empathizing with female characters—from Cukor to Visconti, Minnelli to Waters to Hernandez, all demonstrating an important obligation of gay consciousness. Such artistry can positively redefine all cinema. Davies’ female narrator says “A queer thought came to Chris: Nothing endured but the land. Sea, sky and the folk who lived there were but a breath, but the land endured and at that moment she felt in the gloaming that she was the land.” This sense of belonging has nothing to do with political fashion—it goes deeper than political correctness.
Chris’s sense of heritage is fully expressed in her ambivalent relationships with men, starting with the cruel father (Peter Mullan) who gave hell to her mother through the oppression related to painful child-bearing, and her upstart brother, Will (Jack Greenlees), who flees. Sunset Song answers the misery of Davies’s earlier autobiographical films the same way gay artists must eventually learn to celebrate their brotherly potential. This embrace is felt through a supporting cast of masculine splendor.
Guthrie’s Ewan is shorter than Chris but as her spiritual and physical boy-toy (like Nino Castelnuovo in Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), his wide eyes see into her large need. Ian Pirie portrays Chae, the family friend whose Ward Bond smile gives desired fatherly sustenance and Greenlee’s suffering (a version of the personal pain Davies frequently explores) is memorably stylized. In a pieta image, Chris cradles her brother, his delicately sculpted body striped with welts. She soothes him, “There are lovely things in the world. Lovely that do not endure and the lovelier for that.” All of these are men you ideally want in your life.
Sunset Song’s story is told through moments of gorgeous, dramatic transition. But it will be remembered for its profound intimacy as in Chris’s wedding night: “For it was she and only she that felt and knew the wonder of God. She tried to tell Ewan of her daft fancy but all he said was ’Aye.’” Davies’s images are up to that shrewd, literary perception. At age 70, Davies has more to teach contemporary audiences than any other filmmaker—as during Chris’s erotic idyll: “She wasn’t quite sure what things she had dreamed…or had actually done.” Sunset Song realizes every gay person’s most profound desire.
Sunset Song is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer below: