Not unlike his first-name counterpart from across the pond, Mr. Malick, the great British filmmaker Terence Davies creates contemplative, handsome movie essays on life and love and loss. His pictures also, mercifully, have an actual plot. The House of Mirth (2000), a magnificent Edith Wharton adaptation, is a textured examination of societal mores (toplined by a daring, nervy tour de force from Gillian Anderson), and The Deep Blue Sea (2011), starring Rachel Weisz, is one of the great thwarted-passion dramas of recent years, featuring a Tom Hiddleston performance that no Tom Hiddleston fan worth her salt should ever miss.
Davies’ new film doesn’t reach the high bar set by those two, but in its best moments Sunset Song presents a lovely, unfussy, elegiac tale of life on a Scottish farm just before the start of World War I. The source material is a 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, a classic on par with The Grapes of Wrath in its native country, which chronicles the liberation of a teenage girl named Chris (former fashion model Agyness Deyn) as she matures into a woman. Early on, Davies comments incisively on the chattel existence of females when he cuts from the noise of Chris’ mother’s agonized coital shrieks to the sound—nine months later—of the excruciating childbirth of twins.
That transition helps explain why the matriarch (Daniela Nardini) fatally poisons herself and the newborns a few weeks later. “She was pregnant again, and it unbalanced her,” says the town doctor. (The word “bairn,” a Scottish colloquialism for baby, is frequently used, and the film is being released with subtitles to assist non-Scots with understanding the dialogue.) The loss of their mother leaves Chris and her brother (the Hiddleston-ish Jack Greenlees) to fend for themselves against their brutal dad (played by brutal dad de rigueur Peter Mullan), a humorless tyrant who regularly belts his son and in one scene makes a not-too-veiled sexual advance on his daughter.
The father eventually shuffles off his mortal coil—and not a minute too soon, since the resourceful Mullan is often reduced to villainous grunting—which segues into Sunset Song’s languidly gorgeous middle section, as Chris meets and marries a local boy named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). Together, the couple rejects the austerity of their forbearers by living a blithe, romantic life—until war breaks out and Ewan is pressured to enlist. The film takes a false turn in its final act, but there is a certain melancholy enchantment in Davies’ golden-hued countryside. When a crowd sings “Auld Lang Syne” at a wedding reception, he makes you feel the tender warmth of a hearth fire alighted in the world. B+