It’s rare that I get angry at the films I review, even when the film is poorly made, thematically problematic, or even blatantly trading on offensive stereotypes. Sunset Song is a film that made me mad though, because it has the lofty expectation that its faux-artistic pageantry will be interpreted by its audience as intellectual and deep, when in fact there is next to nothing under the surface of what I hesitate to call this film’s story. I usually try to avoid using the word “pretentious” (though I admittedly sometimes fail at that) due to my ironically self-important pen name, but there is simply no better word for it. Sunset Song is about as pretentious as film-making gets, and I absolutely hate that.
There isn’t so much a plot to Sunset Song as there are shallow characters interacting within a setting in various modes of meaningless conflict and banality. Our protagonist is Chris Guthrie, a young woman on a cusp of adulthood living under the roof of her abusive father in the Scottish highlands in the early twentieth century. The entire first half of the film is nothing but a series of tragedies, abandonments, and abuses, as Chris’s mom kills herself and her siblings all leave home to escape their tyrannical patriarch. This concludes with the father having a stroke and Chris purposely ignoring his needs so that he dies. What could have been a satisfying abuse survivor’s arc is muted by the fact that we never get much of a look into Chris’s, or anyone else’s, personality, so the players move around the stage like dolls in a dollhouse, acting out tragedy with all the nuance of a first-grade play.
But that isn’t where the film ends. The entire second act is about Chris’s courtship by a local man, Ewan, who eventually marries her and becomes the father of her child. The second act of any film is supposed to function as the escalation of conflict, the point in the film where stakes are raised and the protagonist is faced with their toughest challenges. Here all sense of conflict fizzles away, leaving a dry and protracted stretch in the middle that is well-suited to anyone hoping for a nap. When the film finally does bring in some third act drama by way of Ewan’s enlistment in the army during World War I, it feels unearned and self-contradictory, simultaneously enabling scenes where Ewan abuses Chris in ways similar to how her father did and excusing his behavior by alluding to his fear of death on the front lines. Notice that I don’t mention Chris’s character development, because other than her apparent ability to suffer at the hands of the men in her life, she doesn’t have much of a character at all; Ewan is as close to a fully realized character as we get, and he isn’t the principal focus. The climax of the film is all about his actions and how Chris accepts them, turning what is ostensibly a coming-of-age tale into a neutered telling of how passive acceptance is the key to adulthood, and I think to call that message intentional would give the film too much credit.
All of this shallowness is dressed up in a forced theatricality, complete with nebulously opaque character voiceovers, overlong shots that convey pathetically simple ideas, and actors staring directly into the camera. I confess that I am not familiar with writer-director Terence Davies’s previous work, but for how much acclaim the man receives this is a shockingly amateur attempt at cinematic artistry. Sunset Song is nothing but award-baiting style laid over a story that doesn’t amount to anything character-driven or symbolically significant, at least not how it is told here. That is the definition of pretension.