Beyond The Multiplex: ‘High-Rise’ And ‘Sunset Song’ Offer Two Strikingly Different Looks At The Past

Editorial Director, Film And Television
05.13.16
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Magnolia

Shot-for-shot, few directors working today make movies as beautiful looking as England’s Terence Davies. The other Terrence, Malick, comes to mind, but little else binds them. Malick deals in raptures and reveries. Davies sometimes ends up in the same ethereal realms, but gets there through more meditative means. They share at least one other quality, too: long stretches of inactivity followed by an unusually voluminous late-in-life output. Sunset Song, Davies’ adaptation of Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, has been in the works for over a decade, but it’s one of two Davies films that will, most likely, see release in the U.S. this year. The other is A Quiet Passion, in which Cynthia Nixon stars as Emily Dickinson.

Then again, “A Quiet Passion” could double as the title for most of Davies’ movies, including this one, which tells a slow, sprawling, coming-of-age story set in the Scottish countryside in the years before World War I. Model-turned-actress Agyness Deyn (best known as Aphrodite in the Clash of the Titans remake) stars as Chris Guthrie, the bright daughter of an overbearing, abusive father (Peter Mullan), and sensitive wife Jean (Daniela Nardini). Chris has an active intellectual life and wants to be a teacher, but a series of familial misfortunes deter her from her dreams and, as she relates in third-person voiceover, she attempts to find happiness elsewhere.

Trouble is, happiness is in short supply. Chris lives amidst overwhelming beauty, which Davies and cinematographer Michael McDonough (Winter’s Bone) photograph with a landscape painter’s eye for natural wonders. (The film’s exteriors were shot in 65mm.) But joy is both hard-won and short-lived. “There are lovely things in the world,” goes a bit of wisdom passed between characters, “lovely that do not endure and the lovelier for that.” Sunset Song illustrates that repeatedly, sometimes brutally and sometimes heartbreakingly. Life moves slowly until it doesn’t, the peacefulness of nature interrupted by death, or madness, or the coming of war.

The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody has referred to Davies’ having a “career-long obsession” with “emotional archaeology,” and Sunset Song fits that description. The autobiographical narratives Distant Voices, Still Live and The Long Day Closes, his 2008 documentary Of Time and the City, and literary adaptations like The House of Mirth and The Deep Blue Sea all look to the past with the same questions. Who lived here? What made them passionate? What broke their hearts?

They also come loaded with a sadness for the restrictions of the past that still carries a tinge of nostalgia. The Liverpool of Davies’ most personal films is drab and repressed and filled with abusive parents and same-sex longings that fill his characters with shame. But it’s also home. (Of Time and the City is probably the only movie about the city to view the coming of The Beatles with suspicion and disappointment.)

Davies’ latest fits snugly into his filmography. It’s a film of tremendously moving passages and striking imagery: a sun-drenched church filled with congregants being told they need to go to war; Chris on the morning of her wedding, looking at her dress on the bed and understanding the ways in which his life is about to change. Deyn is also quite good in the lead, bringing a willfulness to Chris that still seems true to the time and making the character believable in spite of being over a decade too old to play the part of a schoolgirl.

But it’s not without its lumpiness, either, its slow pace sometimes making it more powerful, but other times working against it. And the final stretch requires a character to undergo a complete personality shift that doesn’t quite fit into what we’ve seen before. Still, at its best it’s a transporting movie of the sort only one director could make, and it’s a relief to see him busy again.

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Magnolia

It’s hard to think of a film further removed from Davies’ sensibility than High-Rise, English director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1975 cult novel, but there’s a kind of emotional archaeology at work in it, as well. Set in a dystopian alternate version of the mid-’70s, a place of massive sideburns and inescapable cigarette smoke, Wheatley’s film attempts to realize the full nightmarishness of Ballard’s scenario in unflinching detail. It opens with protagonist Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) eating a dog and doesn’t get much more pleasant from there.

Nor should it: Wheatley’s attempting the blackest of comedies here, watching as the high-rise of the title, a place of brutalist angles and all the mod cons of ’70s life, gives way to chaos. This begins with small failures — a broken elevator, a jammed garbage chute — then escalates until class resentment and animal lust lead to a total breakdown in civilization. (Think Lord of the Flies with grown-ups, or Snowpiercer, but vertical instead of horizontal.)

It’s often a dark wonder to see how far Wheatley’s willing to take the material, and Hiddleston underplays the central role well, hiding his own creeping madness beneath an unflappable exterior. He’s joined by an able supporting cast that includes Elisabeth Moss (as a comically pregnant fellow resident), Sienna Miller, and Jeremy Irons (as the building’s mastermind).

It’s also, by the end, all a bit exhausting. Wheatley attempts to turn virtually every scene into a surreal, heavily stylized setpiece, often to the material’s detriment. One mid-film death plays out in an endless, tricked-out sequence that would almost certainly have had more impact if it had been done a bit more simply. So it goes throughout the film, until a Margaret Thatcher soundbite and a song from The Fall usher in the credits and reveal its true nature — it’s more punk gesture than cohesive film, a middle finger thrust in the air again and again long after its point has been made.

High-Rise debuts in New York and Los Angeles on May 13 before expanding. It’s also currently available via on-demand services. Sunset Song also opens in New York and L.A. on May 13.

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