Monday, May 23, 2016

Sunset Song

(Terence Davies, UK, 2016)

Somewhat baffling, given the high praise that many have heaped upon this film - there are moments of rapturous beauty, as I expected, but also a great deal that feels stiff, oddly lifeless.  Never completely lifeless, but slack, overly static.  Davies often seems every bit the Classicist, keeping the flame of rigorous, dramatic, minimally-inflected cinema burning.  And yet at other times the lyricist comes to the fore, moving the camera with agonizing severity and sudden, ethereal weightlessness.  But these two sides of Davies, the charming throwback and the canny Modernist, don't fruitfully interact in Sunset Song.  At times, the film feels to be purely an exercise, sturdy and handsome, but without any deeper fire or spark of invention.  It's bathed in reverence, in a kind of careful, kid-gloved treatment of its source material, like the parchment being brought out of its glass case and set before the collector at auction.

The actors are able and willing, and in certain moments they burst into life, as though Davies were seeing them in their spiritual form.  It would be a shame to realize that much of my discomfort had to do with built-in limitations of the production: a slight budget and the compression and ablation that it entailed.  The exteriors are stupendous, yes, and so are some of the digitally-shot interiors.  But too many others are dry, flat, with the dead crispness of digital, lit schematically, causing a hollow theatricality that is only worsened by the extreme stillness and silence that Davies bathes many of the sequences in.  At moments it becomes unnerving, not in the way of High Romance, which is Davies' m├ętier, but in the cold, oddly vacant way of a Becket play. 

Davies is a great artist, and his strange mishandling of the project - even its very conception, with unfortunate overtones of nostalgia and nationalistic preciousness - shouldn't diminish his great achievements elsewhere.  But it does highlight the pitfalls of his sparse, hushed, reverent approach to cinema.  There are painterly interiors and sudden flashes of emotion, but they are small throbs of beauty in an otherwise staid, puzzling film. 

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