Sunset Song (15)

four stars

Dir: Terence Davies

With: Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie, Peter Mullan

Runtime: 133 minutes

SHE’LL do us proud, says the father of Sunset Song’s heroine, Chris Guthrie. Similarly, no truer word could be spoken of Terence Davies’ adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s beloved novel.

The director of Distant Voices, Still Lives was born in Liverpool. Though he might not wish it, and though film critics do not have the power to bestow honours (an astonishing oversight, I’m sure you would agree), this page would like to award Davies honorary Scots citizenship for throwing such a comely glow on a literary classic, bringing it into the light for younger generations to savour.

Not that Davies handles the material with kid gloves. Both story and director deliver heavy blows to the emotional solar plexus with some harrowing scenes. At times, it can be horribly, some might think almost laughably, grim up north (east). The British Board of Film Classification does not award a 15 certificates to pictures consisting solely of crops blowing artistically in the wind. But while the bleakness and melancholy of the 1932 tale remains, the turmoil is leavened by moments of sheer, breathtaking beauty.

When first we meet Chris (Agyness Deyn), the whole family is gathered in their Kinraddie farmhouse. Father (Peter Mullan) is holding forth, alternately praising Chris for her studying (she wants to leave the land and become a teacher) and bullying his son for his gentleness. The rest of the family, a cowed mother (Daniela Nardini) and two younger children, look on, mere bit players to the central drama being orchestrated, as always, by father.

It is a gloomy but one imagines faithful portrait of Scottish life on the land at the time - harsh, dominated by men, with women (more accurately wives) put on Earth to suffer. As Davies in his screenplay shows, however, there is no room either for men such as Chris’s brother, who do not hold with the old ways of doing things.

So Davies takes us through the years with Chris, charting the rare ups and many downs of her life going up to the First World War and beyond. Those looking for a pretty faithful retelling of the book will find much to please them here, with one event following close on the last and little in the way of narrative jiggery-pokery.

Davies confines his flourishes instead to the visual detail, and what a master of the landscape he turns out to be. We know from his past work, the most recent example of which was 2011’s The Deep Blue Sea, how at home he is on the big screen. The closest comparison made is usually to his near namesake Terrence Malick, but Davies comes into his own when painting in the rough and often dull hues to be found under British skies. In Scotland, in contrast, he has fallen in love with the light and cannot seem to get enough of it. Weak or strong, winter or summer, it beams from the screen, relieving what looks like bone-burrowing cold, whatever the season.

Among the characters, as in the novel, it is the women who make the strongest impression. Nardini’s performance as the put upon wife makes one wonder why we don’t see more of her. Mullan is impressive but suffers from playing a character who is one dimensional in his hatefulness. Deyn, being from the land of Coronation Street rather than the north east of Scotland, had a tough job ahead of her with the accent, but to these, admittedly ignorant, Weegie ears she did just fine.

What remains - Davies’ way with a score and the performance of Kevin Guthrie as Ewan Tavendale, Chris’s beau, are the true highlights of the picture. After Sunshine on Leith and now Sunset Song, Guthrie is becoming the brightest acting hope to come out of Scotland since James McAvoy. As for the music, Davies has as sure a touch with this as he does with the landscape, using it to pierce through the gloom and communicate directly with the viewer’s heart. Layer upon layer, he sings his song of Chris and the land, the majestic, eternal, magnificent land.