Sunset Song less Blawearie than Bladrearie

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The novel Sunset Song is a powerful, sensitive book, intelligent, evocative of rural life in north east Scotland before the First World War. It ends shockingly and brutally with a hint of the breakdown of a way of life and passage into a different one as the trilogy continues in the succeeding two volumes of A Scots’ Quair.

I was full of guarded anticipation before seeing the film, and trepidation. A native of north east Scotland, though not Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire, I’ve seen my fair share of botched productions ostensibly set here but which make no effort to replicate the tongue nor sense of place.

From audiences in Aberdeen there were the inevitable complaints of they didn’t capture the accent. I agree but surely a small point? But they’re actors, it was said. Yes, indeed they are.

Sunset Song the film fairly missed a Billy Riddoch to instil depth and authenticity into it. The Doric, as lightly as Gibbon had included it, was absent. (I struggle to understand many American accents in films so I won’t take any lessons on Scots’ accents being any more difficult for international audiences.)

For many women in this part of the world we are Chris Guthrie. She is one of literature’s great heroines. Her family are small tenant farmers – not crofters as a reviewer in the Financial Times claimed. She was bright and ready to go on to train as a teacher before tragedy struck her family and as the daughter of the household was expected to give up her independence for domesticity. She is, therefore, trapped and the film director conveyed this through a series of interior scenes dark and shadowy with shafts of sunlight through a window or glint of fire or candlelight. But Chris was never wholly trapped for she lived through her imagination that was given free rein outdoors in the majestic and dramatic landscape of the Mearns – among the mysterious stone circles. Sadly there was no sense of this in the film which turned her world into a series of Dutch interiors with the delicate heroine flitting between rooms.

When Chris took over the farm the Director had her look back into the house as if stone walls signified her freedom. The real Chris Guthrie escaped onto the hills and into the fields to lie on land her father worked as had generations of men and women before him. People who hauled great boulders from the red, rich soil, who uprooted whin and broom and chopped down trees and wrocht the grun till oats and barley flourished. She knew when she lay down on heather or corn stubble scratching at her back with the peesies flying overhead that this was not a desert but land shaped by generations of farmers who were not only farmers for some were Jacobins who’d gather in Aberdeen to riot for liberty, equality and fraternity; Covenanters; Jacobites who fought with Charlie; men who attacked the English garrison at Dunnottar with Wallace; Picts that mapped the land and skies, who quarried and worked and arranged their circles of stones in ways magical and mysterious. This was Chris Guthrie’s inheritance and the very essence of the Chris was no pre-Raphaelite flimsy cut-out but a woman rooted in tradition whose back was strong from hard-work, not the pretty young thing who had daintily stepped out of the pages of Vanity Fair onto alien soil.

Peter Mullan was a good brutish John Guthrie but he might have been John Guthrie a granite mason in Aberdeen (apart from the accent) for there wasn’t any sense he was part of that community of fellow tenant farmers, bothy billies, ploughmen and orra men – the majority of whom had lives constrained and ambitions dashed by poverty and exigency. We did see past the mere coarse brute to the former man and lover of the dead wife as he took her hand and kissed her and it was not a stretch to see the same strains that were later placed upon Ewan Tavendale when forced by social pressures to uproot himself from the life he knew and loved to fight in a war that meant nothing to him. In this episode he is transformed from the thoughtful young husband into a defeated victim who turns his anger and frustration onto his wife and child, and as with John Guthrie we see beyond the defensive shell both men built around themselves.

There was no sense of the northeast in the film; the land so beautiful, the skies so vast, the sea so shimmering, the cries and flutterings of the peesies. The folk of the northeast are couthy and friendly and acerbically humorous as they cut each and everyone down to size. Those powerful characters of Chae Strachan, a socialist and good friend of Chris’s, and Long Rob of the Mill who worshipped no particular religious or political god but had a good sense of himself – they were mere walk-on parts in the film. The ideals and radicalism woven into the book got scarce mention and without that so much of the novel’s impact is lost.

The setting for Sunset Song was quite particular. Life is not the same for people throughout Scotland never mind the United Kingdom. Sure we all have things in common but there are nuances of differences which are interesting and do matter. The Director is surely oblivious to this.

One scene set in a wee Presbyterian kirk looks good but the music, bad throughout the film (not just bad but really, really awful) was more high English church with its soaring choirs singing of ‘lembs’ and has absolutely nothing to do with the Scottish kirk and turned the scene into a farce. (The old kirks had no organs and the congregation followed a precentor  in unaccompanied psalm singing – the result was a wonderful ebb and flow of sound.) And why were the good farming folk of the Mearns walking through the barley to get to the kirk? Did they not have roads or tracks? Think they did. Just silly.

Films rarely live up to a good book and this one certainly doesn’t. Some will enjoy it for what it is – a pithy drama – but it isn’t Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, more Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm.

 

PS If only groundsman Willie had been the voice coach …

PPS I have read that Terence Davies regards this minor classic as ‘very badly written’. The arrogance of the man to take a fine piece of literature which as I say above he does not understand and destroy it in the eyes of many by making an inferior film and then criticise the book for being poor beggars belief. 

He said in the same interview he never watched the original film version – it shows Terence Davies. You should have  and then you might have learnt a thing or two – but for a man with an ego as huge as his he would probably have rejected this much superior version as much as Gibbon’s original work. 

Please Terence Davies do not attempt to film the remaining books in the trilogy – leave that for someone who knows what they are about.

 

8 Comments to “Sunset Song less Blawearie than Bladrearie”

  1. I haven’t seen the film yet and now may not. When my kids were young and we were going to visit where I am from I bought the audible book to play in the car. My children, young as they were really enjoyed the tape and it inspired me to read the books. I am from a farming background of many generations of Ayrshire down to Wigtownshire in the early 1900’s. The thing that struck me about the books was that although the dialogue was set in a place over two hundred miles away from my roots it was like listening to my Grandparents and their friends talking. We use a lot of the same words in SW Scotland. Fantastic Books, Mr Davies knows bugger all..

    • Thanks for taking time to read the blog John. I’m a great believer in people making up their own minds so you may enjoy it but I fear you are right about Mr Davies!

      It is a wonderful book, so evocative of a farming time just passed. Strong narrative and intelligent writing. Who needs a second-hand misinterpretation when Sunset Song can live on in our imaginations.

  2. I was excited when I discovered a film had been made of Sunset Song, remembering the BBC drama of it done long ago, though never repeated. I suppose I shouldn’t have expected much of a film, but it’s frustrating that film makers seem unable to get to grips with Scotland and portray it for what it is with depth and feeling. During the summer I re-read the trilogy, having last read it many years ago, and was stunned anew by it. The lilt of the language it is written in, the thoughts of the characters, and how relevant much of the political comments were to what is happening today. It must be one of the best Scottish novels ever written, indeed one of the best novels ever written. Maybe someday a Scottish film maker will produce a film that does the book justice.

    • I agree with every part of that. I, too, love the trilogy, specially Sunset Song. It is a startlingly pertinent novel but perhaps means less to those who are wholly urban.
      The old production was so much better. This film is all froth and flatters to deceive.

      Suspect the only good that can come of it is it might inspire people to read the book.

      A wonderful important novel very under-valued because it is Scottish and the work of a NE writer. All credit to a film maker seeing its worth but he’s failed to do it justice.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Utterly dreadful film. Execrable direction. My heart goes out to some capable actors who were dragooned through this travesty of a great book. Pleased please please keep Davies away from the rest of the Scots Quare.

  4. Worthy…but not memorable. The film failed, sadly, to convey the power, the resonance, the subtleties and the brilliance of this most wonderful and powerful novel……perhaps the greatest of all Scottish novels: It was always going to be difficult to translate to film but…..by reduction the heart was lost. Sunset Song by numbers….. Chris Guthrie: miscast.

  5. Reblogged this on Bampots Utd.

  6. I suppose part of the problem of the portrayal of Chris Guthrie is that knowing the trilogy one is inclined to see Sunset Song through the narrative of the whole which is unfair on the film. If you know only the film then the transitions from farm to town to industrial city and the militant path taken by the son are not there so it has to be judged on the merits of the one–off novel. Through the longer text you are probably correct in seeing Chris as “trapped” and it is trapped in a way of life, not invalid, where fairmers and families are in thrall to the land both as a consequence of how they related to the larger economy and how the land demanded so much of them. This is the trapping which is not really hinted at. Seeing a servant sprinkling a bit seed with Chris shuffling along behind disnae do it. Doing a whole park like that would take a helluva long time; but nae being a son of the soil I might be wrong. The life they lived was not remorseless, unrelenting but it was demanding and most of the pleasures and leisure – whether it was at the hairst, kitchen deems lying with bothy or chaumer men or attendance at kirk – were rooted in the community, as you say. Maybe Chris is trapped by choice (if you can be such a thing) last of a generation which hated the land or hated what it demanded but unable to see an alternative and chooses as you suggest to escape into a mythical past, a golden age of Picts, Stones and when all was well in the world. It must be said poor as the film was it at least encourages reading and understanding the book. No bad thing.

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