Starring: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston
Director: F.W. Murnau
Running Time: 95 mins
Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans is an American film about a farmer whose mistress from the big city tries to convince him to drown his own wife.
Despite being made at the very end of the peak of the silent era, Sunrise is an exceptional achievement. It benefits hugely from pre-Code liberties to bring a surprising amount of emotional drama to the table, whilst also impressing with its diverse use of special effects. Nowadays, it’s all taken for granted, but there are a lot of very modern visuals throughout this movie that make it a lot more dynamic than so many silent Hollywood films.
However, I want to start off with the story, which hugely impressed me. Although not really kicking into gear for about 15 minutes, patience pays off brilliantly as the film launches into a fast-paced and surprisingly gritty opening act that goes places you would never expect films as old as this to risk.
It’s difficult to talk about this film without spoiling the plot, because so much happens so early on. Whilst annoying for this review, that’s an amazing achievement that films nowadays regularly fail to do, and the huge emotional power of the staggering first act was what really grabbed me and let me have such an engrossing watch right to the end.
The second and third acts are just as engrossing, but in different ways. Again, I was so impressed to see the diverse range of genres that Sunrise encompasses and balances so well; moving to and fro between dark drama and blissful romance throughout, but always managing to provide emotional intrigue, realism and excitement wherever you look.
And that’s where another key part of the film comes in: the performances. The film focuses largely on the relationship between the husband and wife, but George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor do an excellent job. Their chemistry is fantastic right the way through the movie, whether we’re watching a happy or sad time of their life, and that makes the emotional drama watching those darker moments all the more powerful.
This is a very poetic film, telling such an emotional and compelling story with such simplicity (far fewer intertitles than normal), but what makes it even more beautiful is its amazing visuals.
Of course, this is all relative to the time (i.e. there’s no CGI), but I was genuinely blown away by the way this film looked. At times, its rapid editing gives great pace, but the film’s use of projected backgrounds, a large-scale action scene, and even spicing up the look of the intertitles from time to time, all gave it a much more dynamic and lively feel than the typically more stationary, play-like films of the silent era.
Overall, I loved Sunrise. With huge emotional power, wonderful romance and brilliant chemistry between the leads, any part of you that doubted the potential of silent film will be proven wrong. It’s exciting, dramatic, emotional and effortlessly engrossing, and that’s why it gets an 8.1 from me.