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British filmmaker Terence Davies tells everyday stories as if they were sequences of tableaux vivants plucked from a collective dream memory. It’s an uncanny, luminous style. In Distant Voices, Still Lives or The Long Day Closes or The Deep Blue Sea ordinary lives become extraordinary. To the gifted artist, seeing through externals to essentials, that’s exactly what they are.
I haven’t read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, but this 1932 work has been paean’d by some as the Great Scottish Novel. Davies’s film adaptation is a heady brew of crofter realism and domestic tragedy, its heroine Chrissie a strong-willed girl played with feeling, passion and a flawless (to my ears) accent by former model Agyness Deyn. Chrissie overcomes life-challenges first as a child, then as a bride. A cruel Presbyterian father (Peter Mullan) blights her girlhood, driving her mother to early death and her much-beaten brother into exile. Then a loving but volatile boyfriend-turned-husband volunteers for war abroad — we’re in 1914 — only to send back the spectral envoys of grief, loss and slaughter.
Davies crafts much of the film as a kind of rapt, heraldic recitative, at once distanced and intense. In domestic scenes the characters are placed against greeny-grey walls in smoky-luminescent interiors; after an hour the strictures of colour and texture start to mesmerise you. So do the playoffs between the vividly felt dialogue and the brief, gemlike novel extracts read out, in a voiceover, by a Deyn speaking of her own character in the third person.
It could have been calamitous, this bizarro-Brechtian approach to a rural epic couched and conceived in the near-vernacular. Yet it’s magical. The Scottish accents and occasional argot, and the Scottish-looking landscapes (though some were shot in New Zealand), welter us with seeming particularity, while the film’s tone keeps soaring into the eternal. Davies is incapable of a false or glib note. If he wants to torment us with a mother’s prolonged screams during childbirth he will. (The screams stay with us for minutes after they stop.) If he wants to play with his audience, like a cat with a mouse, in the remarkable late scene of an army execution — a tragedy tucked into the background of a panoramic long shot, like Bruegel’s “Icarus”, yet all the more harrowing for that — he’ll do that too.
He knows a story that is worth telling. He knows how to tell it. And he knows how to make it tell, hours, days or, with his best films, even years after it has been told.