It is at least clear that Terence Davies makes beautiful, beautiful films. Maybe even the most beautiful films made without using Emmanuel Lubezki or Luca Bigazzi as cinematographers. And, as with the similarly lush period piece he offered in The Deep Blue Sea, Davies’ long-awaited adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song is a meditatively slow affair, but quite a satisfying one.
Like Gibbon’s novel, Davies’ film adaptation plays like a call-back to — and skeptical commentary on — Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. Again, we have a young woman making her way in rural Britain. But Bathsheba Everdene’s romantic struggle and triumph in south-west England led to her modern-for-the-mid-1800s happy ending; Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) has a harder row to hoe in north-east Scotland during the run-up to the Great War.
The small farming community of Kinraddie offers a hard life to a young woman tantalized with just enough modern education to know what she’s missing. And yet Chris loves the land, and can’t bear to part with it even after a series of tragedies uproots all her other ties. She still tries to make a go of it with the charming Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), only for war to twist her polite young swain into as coarse and harsh a man as her own father (Peter Mullan) had been.
Davies renders this ambivalence subtly. Gibbon’s novel could more easily expose Chris’ inner life to her readers than Deyn can show through her affect alone — the same problem that kneecapped the Hunger Games adaptations — though Davies does offer some snippets of voiceover commentary from the novel’s “English Chris” to help out. Still, it takes some effort on the part of the film audience to suss out what’s going on under the surface.
And it takes more effort still to pick out the even subtler political commentary. Davies is smart enough to recognize the way A Scots Quair — the trilogy that Sunset Song opens — works as an allegory for the Scottish nation at the turn of the twentieth century. So now when we stand at the break of the twenty-first, and Scotland begins to wrest her independence from the United Kingdom, Davies wants to tell the story of “Chris Caledonia” over again. He might put his thumb a bit on the side of her self-determination and give away some SNP sympathies, but he at least tries to capture some of the ambivalence that comes with such a leap, and which usually gets ploughed under amidst the politics.
Even if all that gets lost, we are still left with Davies’ gorgeous compositions. Michael McDonough turns each shot into a Rembrandt painting, all gloriously textured shadows and introspection. The fine bravery of learning might get less emphasis here, but there’s a reason Chris cries for “the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.