'What I love about the book is that it's so full of humanity' – Terence Davies and Agyness Deyn on Sunset Song
As the long-awaited adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's book hits the big screen, we caught up with director and star to discuss loyalty, humanity and subtitles
Sitting in the swish confines of London's Corinthia Hotel, Terence Davies is being charmingly modest. He's talking about his new film, Sunset Song, his long-gestating adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's classic 1932 novel of life in rural Scotland. 'I cannot believe that we've got a halfway decent film out of it,' he whispers. 'I'm very proud of it.'
So he should be; his first film since 2011's The Deep Blue Sea (a luscious adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play with Tom Hiddleston and Rachel Weisz), Sunset Song is more than 'halfway decent'. Beautiful, emotional, rich and textured, it's a triumphant take on one of the most famous works of Scottish literature: the story of Chris Guthrie, a young woman growing up in a north-east farming family in the early 20th century.
Davies first discovered Sunset Song in 1971, when he came across a serialised version on the BBC. 'It stayed with me,' he says. Years later after films like Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) established his directing career, Davies began dreaming of adapting it. By 2003, he'd got a script together, only to be dismissed by British financiers, 'which was pretty crushing', he says.
It was only after the moderate success of The Deep Blue Sea that Sunset Song became a reality. Even then, it was stop-start. Davies, who recently turned 70, cast Agyness Deyn as Chris over three years ago, without any idea of her former life as an 'It' girl model. 'What moves me is the fact that she stayed with it,' he remarks. 'At no point did she say, "no, it's carrying on too long".'
He also cast Peter Mullan as her foul-tempered father, basing the decision on a brief clip of his brutal performance in Paddy Considine's 2011 directorial debut Tyrannosaur. Davies seems bowled over by his cast's loyalty. Kevin Guthrie (as Chris' increasingly violent husband Ewan) and Ian Pirie (farmer Chae Strachan) turned down work for two years to work on the film. 'It's just heartbreaking in a way,' sighs Davies. 'And the performances they've given are so extraordinary.'
A 'nerd fan', Deyn was as desperate to work with him ('I wanted to do him proud'), as she was to grapple with Chris Guthrie. 'She's so inspiring,' she says. 'As a woman, I would want to watch that story. And I think it's important to have stories like that around for young women. I remember reading Jane Eyre for the first time: one of the earliest punks, in a way! I feel like Chris has that energy.'
Partly for sunshine requirements, the film’s shoot began in New Zealand before a Luxembourg leg and finally a return to the book's spiritual Scottish home, with the production decamping to Ballater in Aberdeenshire. It was a tough shoot, says Davies. 'There's nothing glamorous about sitting around on a farm, in mud, in the pouring rain, and then the animals defecate and urinate all over the place.'
Deyn didn't complain. In New Zealand, she and her co-star Jack Greenlees, who plays Chris' brother Will, were taught how to farm with old-school methods. 'We collected the crop and learnt to scythe it and tie it up,' she explains. That helped her get into the rhythms of Gibbon's story and when the shoot arrived in Scotland, the inclement weather was just what she needed, emotionally. 'The coldness and the bleakness added to where we had to be in the film,' she insists.
Sunset Song is a gruelling watch as Chris and Will face grief and violence amid the bone-numbing winters. 'It's a hard life and it's a hard story,' says Davies. 'But what I love about the book is that it's so full of humanity. The ending is about forgiveness for all suffering no matter where it is. That's a huge statement at the end of any novel. But it's so humane, I think.'
While Deyn's performance has been rightly lauded when the film premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, US reviewers criticised the thick Scottish vernacular, claiming foreign audiences might require subtitles. Davies seems surprised when I raise this. 'It doesn't need subtitles,' he retorts. 'And the answer would be "no" anyway!'
He's also uncertain at the praise heaped on the film's stunning photography, shot in natural light and inspired by Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. 'You can make films look beautiful but they can be completely unmemorable. I wouldn't want to fall into the Sistine Chapel complex, where everything is gorgeous but you don't have a damn about what you're looking at. Then I would be worried.'
Rather like his modesty, this is typical Davies who is perhaps burnt by reviews of his earlier films. 'A lot of people who don't like my work say it's ponderous and slow. They've said it in print or said it to me, but that's the way I see it. Some people hate what I do with a passion: I can tell you.' Perhaps Sunset Song will finally sound a different tune.
Sunset Song is on general release from Fri 4 Dec, with selected St Andrew's Day previews in Scotland, Mon 30 Nov.