I’m always terrified to hear a film is “long anticipated” or that it was “years in the making,” lest the weight of anticipation and expectation crush the work that emerges.
Terence Davies’ long-awaited Scottish saga “Sunset Song,” which was first conceived in 2000, bears the weight just fine, thanks.
One of the finest directors to emerge from Britain since David Lean and Michael Powell, Davies, 70, has specialized in achingly poetic, deeply intimate semiautobiographical period pieces set in England during the 1940s and 1950s, including “Distant Voices,” “Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes” and “The Deep Blue Sea.”
“Sunset Song” finds him exploring a different time and place. Adapted from Scottish modernist Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel, it’s a coming-of-age story about a young girl from rural Scotland in the years leading up to World War I.
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Like Davies’ best work, the movie employs classical rigor — perfectly symmetrical, painterly landscapes and interiors — with unexpected postmodern touches.
“Sunset Song” opens on a field of wheat as flaxen as any in cinema, a paean to sunshine and its life-conferring power. The wind makes the dry sea of gold crackle in waves.
It’s a classic image.
But not quite: The wheat extends up a hillside, and as we track up the gradient, the camera gently surveying the field, suddenly up pops a young woman.
She asserts her unique presence in the landscape as if to introduce herself, “Hi, I’m Chris Guthrie, the film’s heroine.”
Played by singer-model Agyness Deyn, Chris doesn’t actually speak in that scene — though in later scenes she’ll look directly at the camera in a brazen breach of classic film protocol. “Sunset Song” is narrated by Chris in the third person, as if she were speaking about someone else, another postmodern touch.
At its heart, the movie is a tale about the tug-of-war between modernity and tradition. Chris is one of six children born to a poor farming family, with a doting but brutal father (Peter Mullan) and a tyrannized mother (Daniela Nardini).
She works hard at school, hoping her superior intellect will allow her to escape. At the same time, she feels deeply rooted in the place of her birth. The smell of the soil brings tears to her eyes.
Deyn is new to acting, with few credits aside from a memorable turn as Richard Coyle’s crafty lover in “Pusher.” She acquits herself well.
She has an endlessly fascinating face, which cinematographer Michael McDonough (“Winter’s Bone”) exploits sparingly in beautiful close-ups at just the right points in the drama.
Davies’ film shifts gears as we enter Chris’ adult life. She doesn’t land at university, but marries a sweet farmer named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) and finds herself sucked into motherhood, like her own mother before her. Ewan gets sent to the Western Front.
“Sunset Song” will feel flat for folks expecting grand, dramatic scenes, long speeches about love, fraught conflicts, or psychological insights. Like Terrence Malick’s early work — one thinks especially of “Days of Heaven” — Davies’ film is heavy on painterly visuals and atmosphere.
Chris’ voice-overs offer a bit of linguistic help. But Davies is almost bullheaded in his dedication to giving us a visual work — even though his film is based on a book that’s renowned for its rich use of language.
I love Davies’ attempt to re-create “Sunset Song” as a cinematic work instead of just subjecting it to a Masterpiece Theater adaptation.
Not everyone is liable to agree. Davies will disappoint, if not anger, some of Gibbon’s fans. And they are legion: In a 2005 poll, Scottish adults overwhelmingly picked Gibbon’s novel as their favorite.
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Agyness Deyn, Peter Mullan, Mark Bonnar, Daniela Nardini, Jack Greenlees.
Director: Terence Davies.
Running time: 2:15.
Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, some violence.