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The land is what nourishes and endures

11 December 2015

Stephen Brown sees a visual feast served up by Terence Davies

© Sunset Song Ltd /Iris Productions/The British Film Institute 2015

Living off the land: Peter Mullan as the father in Sunset Song

Living off the land: Peter Mullan as the father in Sunset Song

WHAT do you make of a film director who has renounced his Christian upbringing but cites T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets as his favourite poetry, adores Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, and has a movie about Emily Dickinson’s faith in the pipeline?

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself; for it is Terence Davies’s adaptation of Lewis Grasson Gibbon’s Sunset Song (Cert. 15) which is currently on show. My question does, however, put into perspective this latest offering from one of Britain’s most brilliant filmmakers.

His autobiographical trilogy of childhood began with Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), and remains a haunting experience. Sunset Song (which Davies has sought to make for more than 15 years) likewise features a tyrannical father, Peter Mullan.

This time he’s a fierce Presbyterian, although his application of faith, leather belt in hand, is remarkably similar to the Roman Catholic prototype played by Pete Postlethwaite. Taking the Lord’s name in vain — saying “Move over, Jehovah” to a horse — results in a whipping for the son. But, despite these depictions of puritanical Christian faith, there are also moments of parental tenderness.

The time is 1911, north-east Scotland. An agricultural community grows gradually aware of international tensions threatening war. Chris (played by Agyness Deyn) is a bright scholar who forgoes university for the sake of working on the family farm. It’s an austere environment, reinforced by an unbending Kirk.

When Chris’s mother dies, we hear “Wayfaring Stranger” sung on the soundtrack, with its lines about going over to Jordan and reuniting with her deceased parent. The main way in which the film ever conveys any Christian joy is through music. At the drop of a hat, people burst into bouts of community singing. And when the characters ons creen are not belting it out, we are treated to full-length versions of other songs.

When the father eventually dies, Chris inherits the farm. Despite her undoubted capabilities, a certain kind of male dominance continues to pervade the piece. Even when Chris marries Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), the narrator describes it as not so much walking from a dream but into one full of nightmares. The minister is every bit as austere as the father Chris has buried. He declares from the pulpit that failure to enlist is an act of treachery, a refusal to acknowledge the Kaiser as the Anti-Christ.

All this is set against a pastoral background of great beauty, New Zealand standing in for the Highlands much of the time. Shot to great effect on possibly the last lot of existing 65mm film stock, this film is in the same medium as was deployed in the classic Lawrence of Arabia. The picture is episodic to a fault, but underlying its various storylines is a testimony to the endurance of nature.

Viewers unsympathetic to geographical determinism will baulk at the way in which people seem shaped by their surroundings. Yet, as Chris acknowledges, ultimately we can identify only with the land. People pass away; the land endures. À la Eliot, the last of earth which is left to discover is that which was at the beginning.

Chris’s faith may have morphed into a vague pantheism. And the film itself would be one long song of the earth, did it not also show us that suffering contains the seeds of redemption. Davies, when interviewed, denies such a belief, and yet displays it very clearly on screen. Like the rest of us, he is a bundle of contradictions, and we are the better off for his being so.

On release from today.

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