Film of the Book: Sunset Song

Directed by Terence Davies (2015)

 

Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie
Agyness Deyn as Chris Guthrie

From the book review:

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing…

You can read the full book review by clicking here.

 

Film of the Book

 

Apparently the making of the film has been a long-term labour of love for director Terence Davies, his first attempt to bring it to the screen having failed in 2003. It has been one of the films I’ve been most eager to see since I fell in love with the book all over again when I recently re-read it after a gap of many years. The book is a profound and deeply moving portrait of a rural society caught up in the changes brought about through modernisation and war at the beginning of the 20th century, culminating with the characters coming together to face an uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

I wish I was about to rave about the film, but I’m not – well, not in a good way, at least. It’s the most disappointing adaptation I have seen on either big or small screen for years. The book is widely recognised as one of the most significant Scottish novels of the 20th century, and I hoped the film would faithfully reproduce the themes and culture that give it that deserved status.

Kevin Guthrie and Agyness Dean as Ewan Tavendale and Chris Guthrie
Kevin Guthrie and Agyness Deyn as Ewan Tavendale and Chris Guthrie

Imagine my disappointment then to discover that Davies had decided to cast an English actress in the central role of Chris Guthrie – a 32-year-old English actress at that, to play a character who is a child at the start of the book and no more than mid-20s at its end. Agyness Deyn does her best in the role, and her accent is reasonably authentic sounding at points – enough to fool a non-Scottish audience anyway, I would think – but she is totally miscast. She is a former model – tall, fragile and delicate looking. Hardly what one expects an early 20th century Aberdeenshire farmer’s daughter to look like, I fear. However, there’s no doubt she looks good in her underclothes or naked, which is presumably why that’s how she appears for a goodly proportion of the time. But the young girl’s sexual awakening is handled in the book with a kind of harsh integrity which is lost completely by having a mature actress play the role.

Chris as a child - you can tell by the pigtails. The wig changes style throughout to indicate her increasing age...
Chris as a young teenager – you can tell by the pigtails. The wig changes style throughout to indicate her increasing age…

Many of the other cast members are Scottish and some of the performances are excellent. Peter Mullan as Chris’ harsh and brutal father is entirely credible, and Kevin Guthrie does well with the character of Chris’ lover and husband, Ewan Tavendale – though Davies’ interpretation of Ewan’s character gives him an innocence and charm in the early days of their relationship that he doesn’t really possess in the book, making his later transformation about as realistic as Jekyll and Hyde. Daniela Nardini, one of our finest Scottish actresses, stands out as Chris’ mother – unfortunately, the character’s early death means this is a tiny role. And Ian Pirie works wonders with the severely reduced role that Davies leaves for Chae, one of the central characters in the book, perhaps as much its heart as Chris herself, but here sidelined to the periphery, as Davies converts the ensemble piece of the book to a narrow concentration on Chris’ early life and love for Ewan.

Chris isn't the only one who has aged before her time - this is her teenage brother being beaten by their brutal father. A scene with a great deal of pathos in the book made ludicrous by the fact that the son here could easily beat his father to a pulp if he chose...
Chris isn’t the only one who has aged before her time – this is her “teenage” brother being beaten by their brutal father. A scene with a great deal of pathos in the book made ludicrous by the fact that the son here could easily beat his father to a pulp if he chose…

One of the central themes of the book is the loss of Scottish language and culture due to the anglicisation of the education system, forcing children to speak English rather than their native dialects. What an utterly odd directorial decision then for Davies to anglicise the speech in the film! He uses a rather annoying voiceover to explain all the bits of the book that he fails to portray on the screen, and mentions the question of anglicisation in that, so clearly he didn’t miss the point in the book. He gives as his reason that using authentic dialect would have made the film difficult for viewers unfamiliar with it – I suggest that’s why they invented subtitles. Would he make an Icelandic film in English too? Sadly, perhaps he would.

I won’t even bother to mention my horror at finding that much of the film was shot in New Zealand.

Daniela Nardini as Chris' mother - a stand out performance in a tiny part...
Daniela Nardini as Chris’ mother – a stand out performance in a tiny part…

The real disappointment though is the narrowness of the focus of the film, it’s concentration almost entirely on Chris. The book also has Chris at its centre, but through her lets the reader see the whole community. It’s the discussions between the men that show the beginnings of the rise of socialism, the attitudes towards the war in this community so detached from the seat of power, the social strata and structures that must yield to change. Davies allows us about three minutes of this in one scene of the community getting together, with the result that when some of the men decide either to go or refuse to go to war, the viewer is left baffled by their motivation, unable to differentiate between cowardice and principled pacifism. And he takes the community completely out of the ending, leaving us with Chris standing alone – totally wrong and distorting the entire point of the book.

Peter Mullen gives a good perfomance as the brutal father of the family...
Peter Mullan gives a good perfomance as the brutal father of the family…

Perhaps it works as a standalone war-time love story for non-Scots. There is some lovely scenery and some of it is even Scottish, but it crawls along from one set-piece scene to another with the camera lingering far too long on overly staged tableaux, never flowing nor achieving a true portrayal of the characters or the culture. By all means, see the film, but please don’t think it is anything other than the palest reflection of the excellent book.

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★ ★

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You won’t be surprised to learn that by a huge margin…

The Winner in the Book v Film Battle is…

 

sunset song 2

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THE BOOK!

 

 

61 thoughts on “Film of the Book: Sunset Song

  1. Yeah, that’s the problem with lots of movies I’ve seen as of late. Young characters are represented by older fellows and ladies. It’s rather ridiculous and not at all believable. Maybe actors don’t get good until they pass 30. Huff-Hum.

    I bet, too, that New Zealand is easier to shoot film in than Scotland, you know.

    Wait…that’s a wig she’s wearing? Wow. That’s pretty good. But she does look out of place with two red pony tails.

    • I know – I don’t know why they do it. It’s silly. I mean look at that guy – he’s about a foot taller than his ‘father’ and clearly fit! It made the whole scene ridiculous – and she was the most unconvincing young girl I’ve seen since… er… *slaps on more wrinkle cream*

      *gasps* I beg your pardon??? I’ll have you know that Scotland is the most beautiful country in the entire world, sir, and don’t you forget it!!!

      It’s a terrible wig! I became mesmerised by it…

      • Well, maybe he was so intimidated he couldn’t move. Wouldn’t it have been pretty neat, tho, if he grabbed his father in a rear naked choke? #epic It’d be over fast. *laughing lots and lots and lots* Oh, it’s better to be older.

        Yes, but what about the sun never shining? Hm? Films need some sun at times, see.

        Really? Goodness. I need a new wig.

        • *laughs lots and lots* You’re just trying to make me google “rear naked choke” aren’t you?? Well, I won’t do it, do you hear?? I dread to imagine what kind of ads they’d start targetting me with then!! I AM NOT OLDER!!! I’m just… seasoned.

          Look, whose side are you on?? And we do get sunshine at least once a year – he should just have practiced filming quickly! *nods vehemently*

          She’d have looked better in your wig…

          • You don’t know what a rear naked choke is?! Goodness. It’s universal, I tell you. Nothing at all…like you’re thinking!! Such a wicked mind. Seasoned. I like that. I am too, the sudden.

            Oh no, they’d need it at least…5 times a week. *nods*

            My wig is so impressive, for sure.

            • Funnily enough I just read a book where that was the murder method, though the author didn’t give it that name. But I bet you’re seasoned with oregano, whereas I’m a simple salt girl…

              So you are on their side… *growls*

              It is! You don’t wear it often enough!

            • Humph. That’s not fair! I’d rather be pepper or salt. Not oregano. Yucketh.

              Maybe half the time? But just half, mind you.

              I put it on from time to time. To improve the hair.

  2. How disappointing, FIctionFan, that such a quintessentially Scottish story wasn’t filmed in Scotland. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I can’t believe there wouldn’t be some places in Scotland where he could have gotten the necessary permissions to film. And the whole language thing really gets to me. One of the key issues of that era was the attempt towards assimilation; and of course, that includes the language. How could there not be scenes where these people are speaking their own language? I won’t go on, but honestly, that bothers me a lot. Think I’ll focus on the book, thanks…

    • I don’t know why he filmed some of it in NZ – Scotland actually has quite good access for filiming. Crazy decision! And the language thing really annoyed me – I quite often don’t understand American dialects on films or TV, so I just switch on the subtitles. I have to say I’m by no means the only Scot he’s upset – some of the reviews are much more virulent than mine! I don’t see the point of filming a book adapatation and completely ignoring major themes… grrr!!!

  3. Hmm…….I can feel your justified outrage. I have neither read, nor seen, but the book is on a back burner for a ‘someday…………..’ And I’m not minded to sample the film now.

    • Outrage is the word! The thing is now I really want to see a good adaptation of it, but it’ll be years before anyone has another go. Definitely stick to the book in this instance – even taking the film simply as a film I felt this one was incredibly slow and didn’t ever really come to life…

  4. I remember this book well.from school (I went to school.in Stonehaven so this book was a HUGE deal to us!) I very rarely love films of books I have enjoyed so try not to even watch them nowadays. I think Peter Mullen is an amazing actor and would only watch this to see him-I seem to remember him filming in New Zealand for a drama series and at the time I did think it could pass for Scotland then!!!! I hate the fact that with all the amount of talented actors in Scotland they still employ the big names and the fake accents!! Just my humble opinion ofcourse 😉

    • Ah, a fellow Scot!! 😀 I’m trying to train myself to see the good points in adaptations, but I think so far in my quest the film has only won once – Jekyll and Hyde. Peter Mullen was one of the highlights of the film undoubtedly, but again you probably remember from the book that both her parents die early on – so my two favourite performances disappeared! Just everything about it annoyed me really – why adapt one of the most highly regarded Scottish books and yet film it abroad with an English actor… arrrrghhhh!! Oh dear, I need to go eat some chocolate now… 😉

      • I was born in England and moved to Scotland as a child but went to school then uni there and married a Scot and my kids were born there! We live in England now but still consider Scotland our home! I don’t think I have come across a film yet that matches up to the book! But as I say I try not to watch them as I hate disappointment!! Oh have some chocolate for me too….I am trying to get rid of my middle age spread and have cut down!! 😊

        • Well, that all counts as Scottish in my book! 😉 Yeah, the book always has more depth, but sometimes the film can be good as a film, unlike this one. I really enjoyed Brooklyn – and I love that book! Haha! Most of the chocolate I eat is virtual I admit, but I’m always willing to add more…

  5. What a disappointment! I did wonder – there was a lot of whoop-de-do when the film first came out, and then a dull thud. No-one has suggested to me that the film was worth seeing, and I am of the generation (even more than yours, I think) that adored the book and regarded it as one of the seminal works in the effort to reclaim Scots literature. I hate it when a film diminishes a book – I always feel for the people who don’t read it because the film put them off. Let’s just hope they don’t do a similar number on parts 2 and 3.

    • Mark Kermode, the film critic on the Beeb, raved about it – but then he’s a) English and b) has nae taste! But most of the reviews from ordinary people on Amazon and elsewhere have been pretty damning – especially from Scots. Such a disappointment! I’m hoping though that its poor showing at the box office will prevent any horrific follow-ups. This is the first of this film/book comparison where I really, really don’t want people to see the film first – it would be enough to put them off the book for life, I’d think. Grrrr!!!

  6. Your review did, however, get me interested in the book. I will definitely stay away from the film. Sounds wretched! New Zealand is a very popular filming spot. It must be cheaper to film there….

    • I do highly recommend the book – it particularly resonates with us Scots because of the theme of cultural destruction, but there are plenty of more universal themes in it too to make it work, I think, for a wider audience. But the film – gah!!! It must be cheaper – and actually there are a lot of similarities between Scotland and NZ in terms of scenery and weather, but given the film was partly paid for by BBC Scotland – i.e. me!! – then I think it should have been filmed here!! *dons kilt and claymore and yells battle cries*

      • Surely there is something more than ironic in the fact that a book which is about ‘cultural destruction’ gets made by an director who uses an English woman, as you are pointing out, as the central character…and then films it somewhere else.

        I don’t have particular problems with actors using accents not their own (if they can do it very very well indeed) but, given the fact that a classic book which clearly has some strong resonances for Scottish people AND is about cultural destruction……it rather sounds as if Malick not so much shot himself in the foot, but went down shooting as many Scots in as many places as he could!

        I guess Mr Malick is going to get a bit of a frosty reception North of the Border. Not least by the battalions of talented home grown thesps.

        I THINK I can forgive a very young Dame Peggy Ashcroft for being a murderously mangling the accent crofter’s wife in Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps, only because the world was younger then and vast swathes of the acting fraternity probably were pretty cut-glass. And, it was Dame Peggy, who was rather special

        • Yes, in general I don’t object either – after all that’s part of why they call it ‘acting’. I’d never object to an English Macbeth, for example, since he’s only Scottish by accident – the play’s themes are universal. But this book is so specifically about Scottish culture and its anglicisation, and it’s one of those ones that people feel protective towards as something precious. It almost feels like a deliberate insult somehow! Mind you, a lot of Scottish reviewers are more up in arms that he got the words of Auld Lang Syne wrong in the film, which I must admit I didn’t pick up on – but again… how could he???

          But wouldn’t it be lovely if we really could all look twenty years younger just by sticking a couple of pigtails on our wigs? He should have got the son to wear pigtails too…

  7. Oh my word. I haven’t read the book, but I would definitely take it over that film. What a travesty. I always giggle when movies feature actors far older than the characters they were hired to play. (The play and film GREASE comes to mind.)

    • So disappointed in the film! Haha! Yes, Olivia must have been pretty ancient as teenagers go! But I loved the way in this one he thought sticking a couple of pigtails onto her wig would fool us all into thinking she was a young girl…

  8. Don’t think I will. Thanks. There’s no excuse for this kind of miscasting, unless they’re just trying to bring in those who want to see some skin. And that slice of burly beefcake being whipped by his father? Really? LOL

    • Haha! I know – isn’t it ridiculous? And then he goes and cries on his sister’s lap – very touching when they’re supposed to be mid-teens – not so touching when they’re both a foot taller than their father and when the son looks like he could put up a good performance in the boxing ring! Gah!!! I was so looking forward to this film too…

  9. Sorry this one was so disappointing, FF, but at least you enjoyed the book. I think movies and TV err when they put an older actor/actress in the role of a young person. It smacks of manipulation, getting the viewers to cross a fairly wide chasm of belief. While I’m sure New Zealand is beautiful, I’d have thought Scotland would encourage directors and such to stick around so their movie would be more realistic as to location. Sigh. Probably cheaper to do overseas, or some such.

    • Yes, I think it probably worked better way back when picture quality wasn’t so good, so you could maybe get away with it. But with HD and so on, it’s so obvious when an actor is too old for the part. In this one I felt he should have different actors for the kids scenes and the adult scenes. And I was gobsmacked about the New Zealand thing, especially since the thing was part funded out of our TV Licence fees, it appears. So disappointed in this one…

  10. I’ve been meaning to read that series of books for ages. They just keep getting shoved aside and forgotten until brought to my attention again.

    • The first book is certainly great – I can’t remember the other two very well. I think I liked them but not as much as the first. I keep meaning to re-read them, but it’s finding the time…

  11. Well I loved your review but having not read the book or watched the film I’m unable to add any useful comment – although perhaps the book sounds good! Seriously it is mad to leave out what sounds like a key point of the book re the language – yes we can all manage subtitles these days! I also don’t like it when they use mature actresses to play young girls – do they think we won’t notice if they take their clothes off?

    • You might enjoy the book but some of it is in dialect and I know you’re not fond of that. Though it’s not too overdone…

      Crazy, isn’t it? I can quite see why they don’t always use dialect in films, but when it’s actually an important point of the thing…!! I’m coming round to the older woman thing though – I’m going to stick a couple of pigtails on my head tomorrow and people will surely mistake me for a youngster! Think of the money I could save on wrinkle cream…

  12. I recently read, and loved, Sunset Song and, agreeing with all your points, will not watch the film. I absolutely concur that for a story which has at its heart Scotland, Scottish people, language and culture, these choices around main actor and location deeply undermine the heart of the story. The NZ setting may well have been for monetary reasons (there’s a push here to enable international film making) but the setting is a bottom line decision for this story. As a non-Scottish person (with some vested interest via heritage) I would want authenticity and insight in a filmed version of Sunset Song, not an accent I can’t rely on and glimpses of my own homeland! And that’s before considering the story elements you comment on. Thanks for your thoutful and passionate review; I really value a Scottish perspective on this one.

    • I was really hoping that I’d be gushing about this one and urging you to watch it, but sadly not. In general, I don’t get so fussy about the nationality of actors or where something is filmed, but with this one it seems more important than usual. Also because it was part funded by BBC Scotland, our publicly funded broadcaster – I kinda feel they should have exercised a bit of control, because their role is surely to specifically to protect Scottish culture within the Union. If it isn’t, it should be!

      Grrr! Such a disappointment! And I must say most of the reviews I’ve read from Scots suggest I’m not the only one who feels that…

  13. Like many Scots I first read Sunset Song as a set text in school. I’ve loved it ever since and think you’ve got the feel of the book spot on. When the film was released it got a lot of advertising in London on Tube but I just couldn’t see Agnes Deyn as the Chris Guthrie I have in my head so I gave it a miss but have wondered till now if I missed something great – now I realise I didn’t really miss much at all!

    • Thank you! I didn’t know Deyn before this, not being much of a movie watcher in general. She did her best, but she was just so wrong for the part. I was surprised that the film didn’t seem to take off up here, but now that I’ve watched it, my surprise has diminished! What a missed opportunity – such a disappointment, and it’ll probably be many years before anyone tries again.

  14. I know that part of being an actor means that you might play the role of someone unlike you, which could include nationality, but good gravy do I think that is annoying. One of my favorite comic book series, Preacher, is coming to the AMC channel (famous for Sons of Anarchy and The Walking Dead). The actors are ALL WRONG. The main character, Texan Jesse, is played by an English man. The Irish vampire, Cassidy, is played by an English man. The all-American blond girlfriend is played by an Ethiopian-Irish woman. Who are these people?!

    • Yep, I never understand why people adapt books and then change them so much. Why not just write an original story?? Of course, it’s to suck the fans of the book in, but since they’ll probably just end up criticising then I can’t see that doing much for the show’s reputation. Weird!

      • Yeah, we are terribly critical of the movies that come from books. Must be for the people who didn’t read the book and are like, “Yeah, this is faster.” One movie I saw but haven’t yet read the book is The Theory of Everything about Stephen Hawking. The book is at my library, but I’m trying to avoid the library. Did I mention I’m sitting in the library?

        • Haha! Good avoidance technique! 😉 I hardly ever watch a movie in truth these days – that’s kinda why I’m doing the book to film thing, to try to get me back in the habit. I see them on review shows and ads and think they look great, and then just never get around to them. Too many books, that’s my excuse!

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