Even when working from source material crafted by others, Terence Davies, like all singular filmmakers, imprints it with his DNA. At once solemn and lusty, Davies' page-to-screen transfer of Scottish author Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1932 novel beautifully conveys human fragility, our bodies and minds outmatched by the brute indifference of nature or war — or by the cruelties inflicted by those closest to us. Davies' mastery of his medium, amply evident in his signature sinuous camerawork and exacting attention to lighting and sound design, suffuses Sunset Song and every title in his filmography.
"There are lovely things in the world, lovely things that do not endure. And are the lovelier for that," Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), the rugged, school-loving heroine, says at the midpoint of the film, which opens around 1910 and ends shortly after World War I. The protagonist is deeply tied to the land, as the terrific first scene underscores: The camera swoops across an immense field of wheat in the Mearns of northeast Scotland, settling on an obscured, reclining figure; Chris sits up, all of her lanky body now legible, though still dwarfed by the amber waves of grain. (To reinforce the vastness of the landscape, Davies shot all exterior scenes on 65mm.)
Chris, one of the oldest in an ever-expanding brood of siblings, is the darling of her tyrannical father, John (Peter Mullan), an ogre who suggests a sick progenitor of the abusive dad in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Davies' feature debut. But after John suffers a stroke and Chris is left to care for him, she too must fend off his maltreatment. Eventually freed from him and all other family ties, the stalwart young woman finds love in the charming farmhand Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). "So that was her marriage. Not like waking from a dream, but like going into one," the offscreen narrator says. Despite their physical discrepancies — Deyn, a former model, is at least a head taller than Guthrie — the actors generate tremendous electricity, the erotic spell Chris and Ewan fall under never in question.