What’s happened to Terence Davies? After three full features pre-2000 the 69-year-old director has doubled his output since. It’s welcome though as he follows the gloom of wartime London in 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea, with an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s rural Scottish classic, Sunset Song. Davies brings his main traits to bear; beautiful shot composition, quiet endurance and the tyranny of overbearing religion, as he captures the flow of life at the start of the 20th Century.
One element that always remains inextricable in Davies’ films is the melding of person and environment. His stories don’t just play out on top of minutely detailed period images, they are part of them. This is very true of Sunset Song. The land Agyness Deyn’s Chris works is as much a part of her as the education she’s forced to cut short and the family that imprisons her. It’s in her blood as the camera whistles through golden fields and overgrown country lanes, down to the lakeside where the tiniest ripples grow into something beautiful, and back up in driving sheet rain.
The interiors are just as impressive, saturated with a mustiness that clouds the screen until it’s scared away by outside light and the flickering arc of flame from candles placed in the foreground of several shots. Perhaps even better is the sound design that captures the slightest rustle of corn and the crunch of dirt underfoot rising through to numerous folk songs.
This is the land Chris comes from, the one she’s desperate to escape and destined to remain chained to. A smart student, she wants to be a teacher one day. Anyone stuck with her father (Peter Mullan) would want to be free of his god-fearing rage. He takes a belt to his eldest son (Jack Greenlees) for crimes as dastardly as using the Lords name and touching his gun. Chris is left to hold him as he sobs on his front, a grid of belt buckle welts carved across his back. Their father calls on a collection of vile weapons to control the family, eventually forcing all their departures. Apart from Chris, imprisoned on the land she loves and hates.But she endures. She always endures. Deyn is excellently cast, her big eyes capable of reflecting innocent playfulness one moment, paralysed fear the next. She might wrap up her treasured books and consign herself to a life chasing after her father, but she won’t give up hope. And like the land, and like the country, her fate ebbs and flows. There may be fallow years but it will all become hers one day, and when she finally runs the place, and finds an equally delightful husband (Kevin Guthrie), she has to watch the war take him, as it took so many others. And she just carries on. She grieves and she fights, and she carries on.
Not everything works. There’s a staginess to the dialogue, a reflection of the source material perhaps, but a distraction when viewed from our vantage point a century on. Davies also gives Chris an unnecessary voiceover that pulls her out of a carefully crafted world by describing reactions already explained visually. It starts to leave emotion at arm’s length, creating a disconnect that is never quite solved. It doesn’t help that Chris fades out near the end, replaced by her husband in a sequence that works well in isolation but not as part of the whole.
These unresolved problems leave Sunset Song unable to open its heart in quite the way it should. And yet there’s something in there that takes root, an unshakeable feeling that Davies has closed the gap between our past and present lives. Life is often tough, but like Chris, we can endure without losing ourselves.