Posts tagged ‘Terence Davies’

December 5, 2015

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.