Scottish Tragedy

'Sunset Song' sings of rural bliss and loss

Terence Davies is a clear-eyed nostalgia artist specializing in the retrieval of the mood and the color of the past. Sunset Song, an adaptation of the Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel set a century ago in Scotland’s Kincardineshire, seems like the culmination of Davies’ work. It functions both as a dreamy eclogue about farm living and as a war memorial.

The lean, tall Agyness Deyn stars as Chris Guthrie, the daughter of a viciously dour father (Peter Mullan, excellent). Though the ardors of childbearing send Chris’ mother to her grave at an early age, the farm is a kind of paradise. There is dialogue about the struggle with the soil, but the soil doesn’t look like it’s putting up much of a fight. It’s almost always golden harvest time, and, given the Scottish locale, the weather is surprisingly cooperative.

There is hard work in this movie, but little in the way of squalor. Later, Chris enters into a romance of absolute picture-book bliss with a neighboring farmer, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), who comes back soured and violent from the trenches of WWI.

Davies favors a theatrical approach that goes along with the stateliness of his composition: characters enter, stand and state their business as they would in a play. And the singing of a chorus walking their way to church is too beautiful to believe, though Davies, as in his 1988 masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives, with its sparing and canny use of music, uses the singing of the hymn to contrast with what follows when the congregation gets to church. There, they hear a saber-rattling war sermon by the preacher about how the nation deserves a “chastisement of blood and fire” for its sins.

Davies is sharp with dualities—the difference between the world of women and men, for example; he favors the former over patriarchal tyranny and the military.

Trusting our abilities to understand, Davies suffuses Sunset Song with compassion toward all. There’s a great deal of feeling behind a toast to life: “Sing it. Cherish it. ‘Twill never come again.”

‘Sunset Song’ opens June 24 at Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719.