Sunset Song is a British film adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel of that name, set in a fictional location in northeastern Scotland in the early years of the 20th century. I had never read Gibbon's novel, nor ever even heard of it before. So all I knew about the movie going in was that it was a well-regarded, beautiful-to-look-at, but also sad story of family life. And so it is, as natural beauty is constantly contrasted with the seemingly unending cycle of human suffering imposed by a combination of generations of poverty and the then conventional norms of family life, rural social life, and (later in the story) political loyalty.
The sorrowful central character is a young girl, Chris Guthrie, who is simultaneously deeply attached to the rural land where she lives but is also smart enough to aspire to an opportunity to study to become a teacher. That never happens, however, and she remains stuck on the farm with her unhappy family, ruled by a hateful, tyrannical father. But the two sides of her personality continue to coexist, and she will end up tht much the stronger for it.
Her father is a hateful tyrant, who keeps getting his wife pregnant until that drives her to kill herself. The younger children go to live with an aunt, and Chris's adult brother leaves for the city (and eventually marries and emigrates to Argentina). That leaves her alone to care for her demanding, oppressive father and the farm, until he finally has a stroke and dies. The natural beauty of the land notwithstanding, the life is hard at best. It is a relatively isolated existence (mitigated by some scenes of social life). And the mind-numbing, soul-destroying struggle to extract a meager living from the land recalls what Karl Marx famously called "the idiocy of rural life." For all the film's evocation of natural rural beauty, it does not romanticize that difficult struggle or that hard way of life.
With Chris's sudden liberation from her father's tyranny, however, the story gets happier for a while. Able to make do on her own with her inheritance, Chris falls in a love with a gentle , sensitive neighbor who seems smitten with her. They have a simple but beautiful New Year's Eve wedding and soon have a son. But this idyllic interlude is ruined when World War I comes and her husband feels pressured by public opinion (and their local Kirk) to enlist. Sadly, the war damages him and their relationship, and the story ends with him dead and her alone again.
The filming takes the desire for authenticity perhaps a bit too far. It is hard to follow the difficult Scottish dialect (even with the assistance of subtitles!) And like the language, the pace of the film tediously reflects more the pace of that way of life than our contemporary lifestyle. That pace puts us more in touch with that long-lost way of life and its straightforward simplicity, which one is led to appreciate and respect. But the hard work, the somber, Church-of-Scotland severity that envelopes so much of that life, and the exploitative oppressiveness of family relationships all also make one much less likely to lament the loss of that centuries-old way of life. Even so, the story subtly exposes how trapped all of the characters are both by their poverty but also by the stultifying emotional demands that grim way of life imposed on them, and invites us to empathize with them all.
When war comes with the "antichrist" Kaiser, God's "wisdom and anger" are invoked. But God himself seems singularly absent from the wretchedness of this very fallen world, so very much in need of redemption. What perhaps everyone might have benefitted more from might have been a very different kind of message formed in a different image of God.