Terence Davies is our greatest cinematic poet, yet he has very often struggled bringing projects to the screen. As many directors are well aware, critical acclaim and gushing reviews on release day are simply not enough. Other factors come into play. The business of cinema is neither logical nor sound. It’s something close to unbridled joy, then, that Davies has managed to deliver three pictures in eight years and is currently at work on a new production (A Quiet Passion). This sudden burst in activity is cheering.
For Davies is a very special talent and in a fairer world, financiers and producers would be handing out money hand over fist to work with him. Some filmmakers are given carte blanche and do not merit such a privilege, as others struggle against the cruel tides of indifference that surround, and sometimes engulf, the major film artist. Sunset Song (2015) is a work of rare majesty in British cinema. It’s a gleaming diamond among the slag heap of a national cinema too entrenched in, even obsessed by, its social realist tradition or the awards-baiting prestige picture. Here is a film that stands alone as elegant, handsome and possessed of an earthy Lawrentian quality (DH not TE). Davies’ filmography predominantly explores the world of working-class folk, but he’s never opted for the standard-issue kitchen sink saga.
His expressive use of the camera and dreamlike elliptical touches sets him well apart from the donkey jacket brigade. His films are something invariably richer and distinct. Better? If cinema is a broad church, there is room for all in the pews, but Davies stands aloft among British directors. Based on the 1932 novel by Lewis Gibbon, Sunset Song is the story of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) and her years growing up on a farm in north-east Scotland, in the run up to the First World War. Opening in golden and lush wheat fields – exteriors were filmed on 70mm stock and its glowing quality enhances the mood of the natural world beautifully – Davies has adapted the 1930s text into a hymn about female fortitude and indomitability.
Deyn is quite the find. Davies, as we know from Gillian Anderson and The House of Mirth, can get tremendous performances from his leading ladies. Chris is earthy, but also ethereal, yet without being idealised. She seems so real, so headstrong. The scene in which she stands up to the taunts and threats of her increasingly violent husband (played by Kevin Guthrie), brandishing a knife and telling him dead straight “I am not frightened of you”, is a fine example of how Davies discards typical melodrama. In its exploration of the sacred and profane, Sunset Song is a reminder of what British cinema can be and do, when not enthralled to trends or traditions. It might have an early 20th century setting and a pastoral locale, but this is a thoroughly modern and accessible work by a visionary filmmaker.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn