“Sunset Song,” the great auteur Terence Davies’s powerful and romantic new film opens with a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of an endless golden field of gluten (I mean, wheat) and finds lovely Scottish schoolgirl Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) seated in the stalks, nearly swallowed up.
Based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon about the hardships of rural life and the ties that bind (and fray) in the early years of the 20th century, leading inexorably to World War I, the film is (as is characteristic for Davies) exquisitely lit and composed and suffused with melancholy.
Chris, bright and energetic, has big plans to become a teacher. But tragedy caused by the cumulative actions of her god-fearing, ferocious father John (Peter Mullan, riveting, as always) abruptly destroys them. She accepts her new role as housekeeper and farm worker. When John has a stroke (felled, flailing in the dirt outside their barns), Chris assumes all responsibilities. Although bed-ridden and fully dependent on her, John’s emotional abuse continues unabated, “You’re my flesh and blood and I can do with you what I will.”
After John’s death, as his sole designated heir (she has three surviving brothers, living elsewhere), Chris is determined to embrace her inheritance and stay on the land. A marriage to a local boy, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), her eager partner on the farm, is briefly idyllic. They joyfully welcome a son, named for his father. But the war in Europe reaches their small, remote community.
Possessing a quiet strength forged by multiple tragedies, Chris now understands the rough and enduring land, her place on it, and is comforted for the future by the eternal cycle of the seasons.
(Department of lowbrow, or maybe just evidence of a typical boomer childhood with lots of time spent watching movies on TV: Chris seems to be a cousin of another beautiful heroine in a melodrama, Katie Scarlett O’Hara.)
“Sunset Song” will open on Friday, May 13 at Film Forum. A Q&A with Terence Davies, moderated by Indiewire senior film critic David Ehrlich, will follow the 6:45 pm show.