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Toronto Review: Terence Davies and Agyness Deyn Conjure Tremulous Beauty in ‘Sunset Song’

Toronto Review: Terence Davies and Agyness Deyn Conjure Tremulous Beauty in 'Sunset Song'

Sunlight settling nervously on a kitchen chair; rainwater filling up a shallow gully; endless panoramic stretches of billowing fields.

If these elements don’t appeal to you, neither do the films of Terence Davies, the English screenwriter and director responsible for “The Deep Blue Sea,” “The House of Mirth” and “Distant Voices, Still Loves,” whose gifts are exclusively for the patient. His films have always captured the yearning of the repressed, which can be said for the director himself, whose latest stately, stunning and, at times, anesthetizing literary adaptation is “Sunset Song.”

Adapted from the influential 1932 Scottish novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the film stretches a few significant years in the life of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn), who learns love and sex the hard way over a harvest cycle of trials and tragedies. As manifested by Davies, it’s also clearly a feminist work, with Chris finding liberation and even a fleeting little joy in the steady disintegration of her family, beginning with a murder-suicide that happens so swiftly (perhaps the harshest, and only real plot contortion in this story) you might miss it.

There is also Chris’ father, a grim paterfamilias played excellently by Peter Mullan, who rapes his wife, wants to rape his daughter and lashes his eldest son Will (rather strapping Jack Greenlees), the scapegoat bearing the brunt of all his father’s unrealized sexual frustrations. Which is an issue for many of the characters in “Sunset Song,” though less violently.

Chris experiences her own sexual blossoming after her father dies and brother scatters and she’s left alone, without a male overlord, to tend to her family’s estate, immediately insisting to live alone. She marries a sweet-seeming young man, Ewan Tavendale (Kevin Guthrie), who inevitably turns to ice after enlisting in the war.

“Sunset Song” is a gently lolling string of such inevitabilities: even new things get old, love fades, and life on the moorland becomes torment. While Gibbon’s salt-of-the-earth style text mostly gets softened by Davies’ trademark whisper of a touch, there are a few sequences —however implied — that jut shockingly from the decorous pageantry on display. There is one unsettling dissolve from carnivorous sex to the shattering cries of body-wrecking childbirth; this all culminates in an obstetrician slicing and swallowing a hard-boiled egg.

Shooting, as ever, gorgeously in 65mm with DP Michael McDonugh, Davies has made another movie to be slotted in the “handsomely mounted” category, though less repressed this time. As the fiery, flickering, mercurial Chris, Agyness Deyn brings an otherworldly intensity to the role, burning holes in the screen as she snuffs out every albatross in her life (usual in the form of men) before falling into a weeping heap of herself on the floor. The film moves slowly as a turtle, with all emotions encrypted, all edges sanded down. It won’t be an easy sell stateside. But for patient viewers looking for knockout tableaux and the sort of slow cinema of storytelling yesteryear that Davies has dedicated his life’s work to, “Sunset Song” is a rapturous, ravishing swell of a movie.

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