In an achingly lovely scene in Terence Davies' 1992 film The Long Day Closes, a little boy rests his elbows on a windowsill and gazes out at the rain slanting past his cramped tenement house in England's industrial North. It's the 1950s, and on the soundtrack is Debbie Reynolds' honeyed "Tammy." To those of us who grew up in dreary post-War Britain (I remember that time in monochrome), the relentless grey of that scene, set off by the pop promise of a Golden Elsewhere, takes the measure of both our days and our yearnings for relief. It's magic applied to life, and there's no such thing as ordinary misery or ordinary happiness in a Davies film, only agony and ecstasy to the power of a thousand.
Inspired by a BBC television series Davies saw long ago, his new film, Sunset Song, is a glowing tone poem that tells a tacitly feminist tale of spiritual escape from a brutal childhood in a remote corner of rural Scotland. The astonishing physical presence at its center, a peasant girl named Chris Guthrie, is played by a beatnik supermodel, Agyness Deyn, transformed here into a luminously old-fashioned beauty with soulful eyes and a golden braid hanging off one shoulder. Chris is a dutiful daughter to her devout but brutally abusive father, who's played with quietly explosive savagery by Peter Mullan. But she simmers with silent anger, and when he crosses a line with her beloved mother, Chris takes matters into her own hands.
Soon, she finds herself the proprietor of a patch of land as majestically beautiful as it is unforgiving. Ownership frees her — as far as freedom goes in the early 20th century, when a woman unwed was deemed a woman unfulfilled and unprotected. Before long, Chris is hitched to Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a bonny local lad with whom she has a son. The couple makes an ardent love match, but as World War I moves closer to this remote backwater, Ewan's limitations threaten to wreck their newfound happiness.
The world outside has spun off its axis, but like all Davies' films, Sunset Song is slow and stately and shot with a rhapsodic attention to details of sound, light and shadow. Every rustling leaf and rustling cornstalk, every drop of rain pounding on stone, every tear of tissue paper, is lovingly drawn out. Chris' family gazes impassively into the camera like a tableau, and the landscape recalls Constable or Turner. Yet none of this has anything to do with aesthetic refinement. As always, Davies means to heighten all of life's moods into a romantic symphony. He interrupts the stillness with bursts of joy (a song-filled wedding, and a startling moment when the camera does something roughly homoerotic with a scene of heterosexual carnality) and with a sharp turn to despair as a man who has faltered awaits his fate, up to his ears in the blood and guts of war.
Still, this is Chris' movie, and her moment both to show mercy to someone who's ruined her life and to triumph over catastrophe. Davies, who has said in interviews that he adored his mother, clearly loves — and, frankly, idealizes — women. At the end, Sunset Song inclines its head with improbable magnificence to Gone With the Wind. Like Scarlett O'Hara, Chris ends up a woman burned by multiple adversities who realizes she has only to stay in place in order to survive and flourish. For Chris, as for Scarlett, there is no Golden Elsewhere. There's only here, and now, and this land in all its wild, forbidding glory.