“There are lovely things in the world,” says the heroine of Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s beloved 1932 novel. “Lovely that do not endure … and all the lovelier for it.” Then she lifts her eyes from her brother’s back, covered with bloody welts courtesy of their belt-wielding father, and stares straight into the camera. There’s something about the pleading look on the face of the Scottish lass — she’s named Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) — that immediately lets viewers know that this is not a Merchant-Ivory or Masterpiece Theatre heritage drama. Over the course of this coming-of-age story’s running time, she will see cruelty, suicide, good men turn to drunks, drunks turn to corpses and a generation sacrificed in the trenches of WWI. She’ll also experience moments of pure bliss amidst the sort of pastoral beauty that make grown men weep. As for viewers who take the journey from trembling girlhood to grown womanhood with her, they will witness the difference between merely adapting prose for the screen and turning it into poetry.
One of the most important British filmmakers of the last 30 years, Davies has always had a knack for taking literary works from John Kennedy Toole (The Neon Bible) to Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth) and giving them a sense of austerity without making them anemic. He’s also crafted semi-autobiographical recreations of his rough upbringing in postwar Liverpool, ones which balance scenes of brutal physical abuse and nostalgic pub singalongs; his 1988 feature debut Distant Voices, Still Lives is a landmark of swooning, violent Freudian sentimentality.
Sunset Song is the closest yet he’s come to a middle ground between these two poles, with several dollops of classic Hollywood thrown in for good measure, and is all the better for it. The movie sticks closely to the book’s story of hardscrabble rural life among the lochs and glens, watching as Chris endures the strictness of her dad (Peter Mullan), society’s idea of what a woman’s place should be, and seeing her husband (Kevin Guthrie) become a broken man after getting the white-feather treatment for not dying to serve queen and country “over several yards of Belgian mud.” (The anti-war third act is the film’s one weak point — when the poetics devolve into polemics.) It’s hard not to read the threatening moments threaded throughout cinematographer Michael McDonough’s gorgeous scenes of glowing fireplaces, golden fields of grain and green pastures as the director continuing to exorcise his own demons. But rather than distract from Gibbon’s tale of Scottish pride and prejudice, any hint of memoir several layers removed enlivens it. Davies gives the book’s — and its heroine’s — sense of the agony and the ecstasy of growing up a gloriously personal touch.
Still, he knows this is Chris’s story first and foremost, and he knows this needs to be as much an actor’s movie as an auteur’s. It’s impossible to underestimate how vital Agyness Deyn is in making what might have been just a movable Romanticist landscape painting into a living testament to the past. Whether she’s toiling away on the farm, curiously looking at herself naked in a mirror, brandishing a knife at her belligerent spouse or singing a Scottish folk sing at her wedding, the 33-year-old star commands the screen. (As she’s a dead ringer for a young Elisabeth McGovern and has a talent for underplaying big emotional moments, she should be commanding casting agents’ attention as well.) Never mind that she’s playing a teen-to-twentysomething; there’s an openness in her performance that seals the deal. It’s the collaboration of the artist in front of the camera and the one behind it that sells the film’s buried-lede thesis, spoken by a peripheral character in what’s practically a throwaway: “A spring of life … sing it, cherish it. It will never come again.” Do not let this song go unheard.