Terence Davies movies don't come around very often, but they always announce themselves in a way that demands attention.
This isn't to say they're loud — the English filmmaker speaks quietly, confidently, ensuring that viewers hang on his every word and bask in every arresting visual. Sunset Song, his first movie since 2011's wrenching The Deep Blue Sea, opens on a vast field, the camera slowly drifting through golden wheat before revealing a young woman who looks to have spent a great deal of time here already.
Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) is one of many siblings in pre-World War I Scotland, old enough to be aware of her imposing father's effect on her loving mother but too young and otherwise powerless to do anything about it. The family grows by two before shrinking rapidly, partially through a few untimely passings and partially by voluntary exile, until only father and daughter remain. Davies moves from one seismic event to another, emphasizing how quickly a life can be irrevocably altered for both good and bad.
"There are lovely things in this world, lovely that do not endure — and are the lovelier for that," Chris repeats time and again. It amounts to Sunset Song's mantra (if not Davies' entire body of work); as we might with an actual sunset, we're invited to take in that beauty before it blinks out of existence.
This is a tough countryside, a tough time, and simply making it from sunup to sundown without collapsing from the mental and physical toll is a small victory. Chris, with her wispy presence and poetic spirit, eventually gets married to a strapping young lad and has a child of her own. The salad days don't last long, however, and she does her utmost to ignore the rumors of war coming from the Continent — and the implications such a conflict might have on her growing family.
After dramatizing his own childhood in early works like The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives, Davies has shifted to literary adaptations in the latter stage of his career: Sunset Song, based on the Lewis Grassic Gibbon novel of the same name, is preceded by takes on Terence Rattigan (The Deep Blue Sea), Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth), and John Kennedy Toole (The Neon Bible). All of these are period pieces, and in their way feel like extensions of a lifelong attempt to make sense of the filmmaker's own upbringing. Davies is something of a nostalgist who seems incapable of making an impersonal film, though there's hardly a rose-tinted one in his repertoire.
Few of the narrative threads in Sunset Song's years-long arc are given as much time to develop as they probably should be. There's nevertheless a pain to these fragmented recollections, and a beauty as well. One can't exist without the other in this film — take in the afternoon sun too long and you'll hurt your eyes.
Directed by Terence Davies
Opens Friday, Lagoon Cinema