SUNSET SONG, set in the remote, raw northeast of Scotland, is a film of tranquil calm and rending, elemental emotional outbursts—which is to say, it is very much a Terence Davies picture. Davies broke through to international acclaim with Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992), autobiographical films that brought to the screen the texture of his boyhood in the working-class Liverpool of the 1950s and early ’60s, then principally turned his attention to adapting, in a manner that never felt less than entirely personal, the works of other artists: John Kennedy Toole, Edith Wharton, Terence Rattigan.
Davies’s latest continues his run of adaptations. The source in this case is a novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, published in 1932, the year before the author’s early death, which Davies became acquainted with through the 1971 BBC miniseries broadcast when he was studying to become a low-ranking shipping office clerk. Agyness Deyn stars as the novel’s heroine, Chris “Chrissie” Guthrie, first introduced as a promising teenaged scholar living under the wary eye and ready fist of a domestic tyrant father, then subsequently seen as an independent farmer, a jubilant bride and mother, and a widow of the Great War. The only on-screen date that appears in the film is the “1873” seen on a religiously themed sampler that can briefly be glimpsed hanging on a wall, and news of the declaration of war relatively late in the story comes as something of a surprise, for up to this point we have witnessed only dun-colored homespuns and candlelight and well-water pumps, and might just as well have assumed that we were watching common people living under the long, mostly peaceful senescence of Queen Victoria.
While Sunset Song works from Gibbon’s text, certain elements of the film reflect Davies’s own formative experiences as they have been presented to us through his filmography. The clever-beyond-her-station character of Chris is a new manifestation of the familiar Davies figure of the budding aesthete hungry for beauty, here found in a new, rural setting. Early on, Chris studies to become a teacher, and for lack of anyone to converse with about history in her rough farming community she cultivates a rich, hidden inner life, developing an almost cosmic worldview while never leaving her native corner of the Mearns. (The occasional appearance of a voice-over by Deyn, read in the third person of the novel, keeps us privy to Chris’s thoughts.) Peter Mullan, playing the Guthrie home’s patriarch, stirs recollections of Pete Postlethwaite’s portrayal of Davies’s own abusive father in Distant Voices, Still Lives, with Davies again emphasizing the terrible anticipation that hangs over a household governed by a capricious admixture of tenderness and brutality. Mullan’s character is introduced leveling a fond regard onto Chris, but soon after, when her teenaged brother, Will (Jack Greenlees), takes the Lord’s name in vain, father matter-of-factly beats him to the ground with a rain of closed-fist blows.
But Davies hasn’t simply transplanted his midcentury Liverpool brick by brick into a turn-of-the-last-century Scotland. In fact, there are few period filmmakers—and Davies has to date been nothing but, with a new film about Emily Dickinson in Massachusetts on the way—who so strive to maintain the integrity of the period that they are depicting in matters of both feeling and texture. When watching Sunset Song and looking at how Davies films, say, a country doctor dispensing of a hard-boiled egg and toast points the morning after a difficult childbirth, or two young lovers canoodling in the parlor, silent save for the ticking of the clock and the hiss of fire in the grate, there is a marrow-deep sense of correctness, of “Yes, I suppose that that was how it was.”
A great deal of period filmmaking skews toward one of two myths: the myth of nostalgia or the myth of progress. According to the first, the past was a glowing, sepia-toned hearth to which we can never return, though we can still from a distance enjoy its comforting glow. According to the second, it was a period of unfortunate but necessary transition that had to be gotten through to become our more perfectly enlightened present-day selves. For Davies, period is something to be seen in the round, like character, with its paradoxes intact. So it is possible at one and the same time that the same dark world in which power hierarchies allowed unquestioned dictatorship at home and recruiters at the pulpit sent tens of thousands of young men to die senselessly for King and country was also a world enlightened by the presence of greater neighborly compassion and less interfering white noise than this one. No one of these factors cancels out the others—they simply are.
If there is one historical constant in Davies films, it is summed up by homiletic words spoken early in Sunset Song by one of Chris’s schoolmates, and repeated years later by Chris herself: “There are lovely things in the world, lovely that don’t endure, and the lovelier for that.” The film has moments of radiant bliss, like the eve of Chris’s marriage to neighbor farmer Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), which ends with them ceremoniously blowing out the candles in the barn that had just housed their wedding feast and dance, then snuffing one final candle aside the bridal bed. (Davies evokes the scene of Esther Smith and John Truett putting out the gaslights in Vincente Minnelli’s 1944 Meet Me in St. Louis, the dialogue of which is sampled in The Long Day Closes.)
More often, however, Davies finds suffering to linger on—I don’t know of another living filmmaker outside of David Lynch who has shown such a consistent fascination for photographing the face contorted in tears. The usual tactic of the long take makes us silent companions to pain, time and again: Will, straining not to let a single tear fall while enduring the lash of his father’s belt, then letting the dam burst as his sister strokes his striped back; the brother’s anguished leave-taking, which conjures the age when a transatlantic crossing was as good as forever as well as any film since John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941); the father’s stroke, which deadens his right side but leaves his nastiness undiminished; Ewan’s homecoming from training camp, brimming with hatred for Chris because she is a woman, and therefore not condemned to death; and Chris’s final “embrace” of what remains to her of Ewan, his good Sunday suit. Stripping back the sentiments behind the jaunty “How Ya Gonna Keep ’Em Down on the Farm?” idea of World War I, Davies shows the emotional violence that comes with even the prospect of facing combat, and as a reflection of how the winds of the Somme reached a distant home front, Sunset Song is bettered only by Maurice Pialat’s 1971 television miniseries La Maison des bois.
Anchoring all of this is the performance of Deyn, heretofore principally known as a fashion model, who manages the not-insignificant task of convincingly playing the same character from adolescence through the abrupt onrushing adulthood that is the lot of the working-class not granted the luxury of deferral. Her aging is signified by the appearance of two new lines on her face and a momentary dimming of luster which falls away in the final affirmative postscript, which finds Chris replenished by the ravishing landscapes that surround her, to which she is explicitly connected. (This show of faith in the restorative power of nature places Davies rather close to his near namesake, Delmer Daves.) Always unusually attentive to the art of transitioning between scenes, Davies ties together images of Chris with the land, as in a moment of sexual awakening where she studies her stripped body in the bedroom mirror—shades of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971)—which lap-dissolves into the wheat fields aflame by night. (Davies developed the contrast between hidebound convention and wild nature by shooting his interiors on digital video and his exteriors on wide-gauge 65 mm.)
It’s been a good year for Terrys—Sunset Song is the only English-language picture with real epic dimension since Knight of Cups, though while Malick’s filmmaking has grown more prismatic and experimental with time, Davies has created something like an idiosyncratic version of the studio melodramas of his youth, with all of the command and clarity of expression but none of the false gentility. A late bloomer who was never exactly prolific, he may now safely be said to be entering the twilight of his career, and the light in the gloaming in lovely.