Terence Davies is the poet laureate of British social realism, a director who imbues his tough tales with lyrical passages of popular song and loving camera caresses along the carpets of old picture houses.
Here, in Sunset Song **** as the camera pans across fields of wheat and mossy Scottish hills, Peter Mullan plays the strict and violent father whipping his son and yelling at his daughter Chris to put some clothes on if she reveals even a hint of ankle.
Chris is played by Agyness Deyn, a former model becoming a good actress. It’s her movie and she nearly carries the saga of barns and bairns, working the land, patting cows and horses and basically leading a full life of misery and tragedy before she’s even reached her 20th birthday. And she was so good at Latin at school, too.
Amid its nigh-comical grimness, Davies’ adaptation – a long standing passion project – of Lewis Grassic Gibbons’ Scottish novel has moments of admirable beauty and skillful, sensitive film making. The interiors resemble Flemish paintings, the landscape wafts like Terence Malick, the generational misery deepens like a coastal shelf (little homage to Larkin, there – it’s the 30th anniversary of his death, you know.)
Yet there are sing-alongs and sunny spots, and Deyn skitters about like a highland fawn. When she gets anywhere near happiness and independence, she marries bright-eyed local lad (Kevin Guthrie, very good) only for the Great War to intervene and shatter the idyll of hard work being rewarded.
Cue Terence’s gliding camera, but this time over the mud and death of some foreign field, boots caught in the wires of No Man’s Land.
I liked Sunset Song, but it is long and punishing, given to fits of melodrama and a really creaky final act . “Have I vexed you mother?” asks Chris of her Mum. “Ach no, not you. Just life,” replies Danielle Nardini with heart-breaking look of exhaustion on her face. It’s a film that feels like sitting on a Quaker’s stool for two and half hours.