It’s nearly impossible at this point to see a girl splayed in a field without thinking of Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth’s iconic painting of a female figure, recumbent in tall grass, her back to the artist as she stretches toward a farmhouse looming in the distance. Christina is a centaur-like creature, her top half modeled on Wyeth’s 20-something-year-old wife, her bottom on his disabled middle-aged neighbor in Maine. Even so, to me she’s always smacked of adolescent yearning and feminine ennui: the country girl longing for something bigger and bolder, caught between the security of home and the wider world sprawling out behind her.
That’s the image we get at the outset of the English director Terence Davies’s latest film, Sunset Song, which opened theatrically yesterday: The farmer’s daughter, planted in a golden field of grain, casts her eyes upward, dreaming of her future. What follows is far less trite. The film, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel that Davies fought to make for nearly two decades, is hauntingly lyrical and visually spectacular, a slow (sometimes maddeningly so) meditation on one woman’s inalienable connection to her homeland.
It stars the luminous Agyness Deyn as Chris, the only daughter in a working-class family in agrarian Scotland in the years just before World War I. Chris, studious and bright, grows up fantasizing of a life as a schoolteacher, but finds those dreams permanently deferred when one by one her family members abandon her: her mother to suicide; her brother to a new life in the New World; and her pious, hardworking, and viciously cruel father to a stroke that first disarms him, then kills him. Before long, all Chris has left is the farm, Blawearie, which she works tirelessly, first with the help of hired hands, and soon in joyful partnership with her husband, Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a local boy with whom she falls in love in a splendorous respite from the hardship of everyday life.
That pastoral dream is not to last. Sunset Song is set against the backdrop of World War I, and soon enough Ewan leaves Chris, too, off to war. The farmer’s “unending fight with the land” becomes a doomed fight for the land, against an enemy that to Chris and Ewan seems absurdly remote.
Is one’s allegiance to class, to country, to gender, or to family? That’s the question that husband and wife each must answer. Sunset Song is mostly Chris’s story, that of a woman of remarkable fortitude and equanimity whose life, nonetheless, becomes more the rule than the exception. But so lovingly does cinematographer Michael McDonough’s camera track the rural landscape—fields bathed in the fire of late afternoon sunlight; verdant pastures dripping under low-hanging mist; and impossibly blue, impossibly big skies—that it’s just as true to say that Davies’s film is about Scotland itself, and about the intrinsic link between the land and the people born to it.
It’s a connection that has nothing at all to do with the borders over which nations wage great wars—“a couple of yards of Belgian mud,” as one character puts it—nor the kilt and Glengarry that the farmers don to go off to die for their country. If you work the land—as Chris does, as her parents did, as Ewan did—you’re forever of it. “A queer thought came to her,” we hear in one of the voice-overs that charts Chris’s emotional journey, elegiac passages that lingered in my mind long after the credits rolled. “Nothing endured but the land. Sea, sky, and the folk who lived there were but a breath. But the land endured.”
The post Sunset Song May Be the Most Visually Stunning Movie of the Year appeared first on Vogue.