One of Britain’s most renowned auteurs, Terence Davies demonstrated a genius for re-creating the details of his youth in his first film, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” (1988). But when putting fictional lives on the screen, he can resort to clichés. His adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel “Sunset Song,” the first in a trilogy that is like a less bleak version of Thomas Hardy, has its moments of grace, but too often resorts to conventions and a tone of high lugubriousness.
The story is ripe for clichés, though Gibbon avoids them in the original. In the early part of the last century in fictitious Kinraddie in a remote corner of Scotland, dreamy young Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) arises from a field of wheat like a Celtic Venus from the sea. As she later puts into unnecessary words (a frequent flaw in the film is redundantly illustrating recited text with voice-over narration), everything passes, except the land, and she is the land! But that realization is yet to come.
In the meantime, her troglodytic dad John (Peter Mullan) terrorizes their homestead of Blawearie. A fierce Christian, and a fertile one, he annually implants bairns on his wife until she can bear no more. But as John wanes with the passing years, Chris grows in strength and resolve. The only girl in a brood of six, she survives to see them all depart through emigration, adoption, and death, leaving only the land behind.
Once free, does she fulfill her dream of going to college and seeing the world? Hardly. In Kinraddie, they have not heard of such things as women’s suffrage or Modernist art or moving pictures. So she marries a hunky local lunkhead (Kevin Guthrie) and settles into the role of a wife as practiced by generations of womenfolk before her.
It’s a backward Eden of sorts, until, in the summer of 1914, someone picks up a newspaper and wonders about this foolish fighting going on in France.
As in many of his films, Davies poignantly depicts the evanescence of life — a day or a year passes in a 360-degree pan. But here it doesn’t seem like anyone is living it.
Written and directed by Terence Davies based on the novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. Starring Peter Mullan, Agyness Deyn, Kevin Guthrie. At Kendall Square. 135 minutes. Rated R (sexuality, nudity, and some violence). In Scottish dialect, with subtitles.