After meticulously capturing the subtlest of emotions in such films as “The House of Mirth” and “The Deep Blue Sea,” director Terence Davies turns his attention from the terrain of the human heart to that of the physical world beyond in “Sunset Song.” In full anamorphic 65mm splendor, the resulting landscapes are lovely, as is the face of relative newcomer Agyness Deyn in the role of hardy Scottish heroine Chris Guthrie, though the underlying feelings are all but lost, rendered in a difficult-to-fathom Scottish dialect and withheld by Davies’ overly genteel directorial approach. Whereas Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel is celebrated for its realistic evocation of rural Scottish life, Davies’ adaptation has it melted down and recast as precisely the sort of bonny romantic fluff the book was intended to correct — a sort of “Jane Eyre” on the Mearns, reduced to a pretty-postcard diversion for Masterpiece Theater types.
Considering the many British kitchen-sink directors who might have been an ideal fit for Grassic Gibbon’s tough, unsentimental depiction of a “salt-of-the-earth” Scottish farming family grasping at a way of life soon to be plowed under by the Great War, the book makes an odd match for Davies’ aesthetic. Nearly everything the novel insists upon staring in the face — the brutality of childbirth, the animal carnality of sexual desire, the toll that being trapped in such a life ultimately takes — is politely pushed offscreen, save for one teacup-rattling confrontation between Chris and her boot-camp-hardened husband Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), which gives way to a brusque spousal rape (the first time the two have copulated without first blowing out the candle).
That scene occurs nearly two hours into a film whose lilting quasi-poetic narration is all that remains of the tug-of-war between Chris’ hardscrabble obligation to the family farm, Blawearie, and her love of books, which might have led her down a different path to become a teacher. By so dramatically privileging scenery over language, Davies effectively renders this debate moot (he shot in Scotland and on distant New Zealand locations in order to do justice to the novel’s harvest-cycle arc). Clearly, the land takes precedence here, while human souls are merely in its service — an old-fashioned modesty lost upon today’s fame-seeking individualists. Even the notion of avoiding military service is more easy to rationalize today, whereas it would have been seen as an act of egotism or cowardice.
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“There are lovely things in this world, lovely that do not endure and the lovelier for that,” a young Chris observes with a wisdom that will serve her well later in life, when loss increasingly comes to color her experience. As its title implies, “Sunset Song” serves as the elegy for a lost era, with its patriarchal Christian values and half-forgotten colloquial expressions (the novel comes with its own glossary). Even if a distrib were to add subtitles, the film could be a challenge for English speakers to follow, patiently unfurling at a speed that will strike contemporary audiences as far too slow — though it’s useful to remind oneself that boredom itself is a relatively modern concept. It’s almost best to watch as one might a silent film (one embellished by Gast Waltzing’s regional-string score and several traditional Scottish tunes), studying the actors’ mostly impassive expressions for clues as to what their characters are feeling.
For much of the movie, the Guthrie clan’s every decision is dictated by its stern, God-invoking father figure (Peter Mullan, less monstrous than he appeared in “Tyrannosaur,” yet every bit as fearsome). As the autocratic master of the family, John dominates his eldest son Will (tender-looking Jack Greenlees) via merciless belt whippings, and moves them all to Kinraddie estate in order to accommodate the addition of two twins — too much for wife Jean to handle, with grim murder-suicide consequences that Davies sweeps to the margins.
While Grassic Gibbon sought to confront these unpleasantries head-on, Davies isn’t so naturalistically inclined, crafting each shot as one might a painting, where compositional concerns trump any outward display of emotion — at least, until Chris receives that fateful telegram, finally giving Deyn a chance to act. The film’s final reel is by far the most important, in which all the pieces that have been quietly introduced come together to tip its general sense of melancholy into full-blown tragedy, and yet Davies makes it difficult to untangle the particulars of Ewan’s fate or what exactly it means to Chris (whose affair the film also admits). And so, as the sun sets on Kinraddie, the film’s final doleful musical choices — especially the “Taps”-like “Flowers of the Forest” — reinforce the notion of something significant passing, though ambiguity (or more accurately, a lack of clarity) choke whatever emotions we might have felt, and we’re left with little to do but admire the scenery.