It’s hard to know how to react to a film like Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, which is so devoutly earnest and so pure of heart that it feels like it has been beamed to us from another century. Set roughly in the years between 1910 and 1916, it almost resembles an artifact from that period, something hewn or wrought out of stone or wood (a piece of furniture, an earthenware pot) rather than a film made with cameras and computers. It follows the career of Chris Guthrie (Agyness Dyne), the sensitive and quick-witted daughter of Scottish farmers, as she weathers a series of personal tragedies with quiet resilience and tireless faith—values that few contemporary filmmakers (with the possible exception of that other Terrence, Malick) would even be interested in touching.
When the film opens Chris is training to become a teacher while living under the thumb of her abusive father (played with gusto by the great character actor Peter Mullan, he of that magnificent croaking brogue). After his death, Chris inherits the family farm, Blawearie, and eagerly steps into her new role as landowner, independent woman, and eligible bachelorette. She wastes little time in arranging to marry the shiest and gentlest of the village boys, and they share a brief period of bliss until the storm clouds of World War I begin to gather.
Chris’s story is set against the grandest of themes—land, war, family, God—and comes to take on a weight that we’re not used to seeing in movies anymore; at times it resembles vintage John Ford, How Green Was My Valley, perhaps, or one of D. H. Lawrence’s less absurd novels. Davies handles his characters with an almost sacred respect. There is humor there, and lust, but the experiences of Chris and her family are treated as (there is no other word) holy. Framed against the majestic backdrop of the Scottish landscape, their humble lives take on a cosmic resonance.