LIKE Under the Skin before it, a big screen adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song has been in development for so long the very sight of it on a cinema screen almost comes as a shock.
Directed by: Terence Davies
Starring: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Kevin Guthrie, Daniela Nardini
Star rating: ****
A long cherished project for Terence Davies, who shot his acclaimed Edith Wharton adaptation The House of Mirth in Glasgow but was subsequently unable to get another project (including this one) off the ground until his transcendent cine-essay Of Time and the City in 2008,
it’s a testament to his tenacity that he’s stuck with it this long.
That he’s made something worthy of his own back-catalogue makes it a bit of a relief too, his cinematic lyricism elevating Gibbon’s book above the miserablist tropes to which too many Scottish films default.
Not that those tropes aren’t also present. Set in rural Aberdeenshire on the eve of the First World War, the film is plenty harsh, particularly in its depiction of familial dysfunction and patriarchal oppression (the latter embodied by a typically menacing Peter Mullan).
But this tale of a bookish farm girl whose unbreakable connection to the land thwarts her desire to live a more educated life is not as dour as its protagonist’s fate might suggest.
In part that’s down to the way Michael McDough’s sun-kissed cinematography captures both the beauty and the hardscrabble nature of the environment (the film was shot in New Zealand as well as Scotland).
But it’s also down to the nature of Gibbon’s heroine, Chris Guthrie, who has something of Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene about her – another young woman in unenlightened times asserting her independence as a matter of course.
Relative newcomer Agyness Deyn proves a worthy choice here. Though Davies often deploys poetic voice-over to tap into Chris’s interior life, the former model turned actress has an intriguing blend of earthiness and exoticism that perfectly reflects the warring impulses driving Chris: she seems both of the land and apart from it.
She’s complimented by Kevin Guthrie’s performance as Ewan, the young man whose sweetness wins over Chris before the calamity of war tears him apart, destroying all that’s good in the life they’ve just started building together.
Throughout Davies hints at this coming chaos and he sums up its effect with a drifting overhead shot of No-Man’s Land that’s both devastating and beautiful – adjectives that could be applied to the film as a whole.