The title is perfect: 'Distant Voices, Still Lives' writer-director Terence Davies's adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbons's 1932 novel of life in the Scottish countryside is like an old familiar tune, a lusty ballad of love and heartbreak sung with passion and power, and just a handful of off-key notes. Agyness Deyn plays Chris Guthrie, prim but proud daughter of a cruel, religiously maniacal farmer (Peter Mullan). The suicide of his long-suffering wife kicks off a chain of disasters for Chris and her brothers. But just when times seem darkest, everything changes: Dad mercifully keels over and Chris is left in charge of the farm and the family's money, and she begins to eye local lad Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) as a potential husband.
The hour or so that follows is close to flawless: like sunshine after a lifetime of rain, Chris's life is transformed, and the film with it, as what had promised to be a relentlessly dour and grimy experience is suddenly glowing with joy and sweetness. Davies's love for his characters is impossible to conceal: a scene of flirtation between Deyn and Guthrie as a flock of hurrying sheep breaks around them like a river is almost painfully beautiful. Michael McDonough's landscape cinematography is rapturous, consciously echoing Nicolas Roeg's work on the 1967 'Far From the Madding Crowd', a film with which this shares ample DNA.
But in its later stages, as WWI darkens Chris's horizon, the film begins to slip into cliché: one character's emotional transformation is so clumsily handled as to be almost laughable, while an unnecessary hop over the English Channel and into the trenches feels manipulative and off-message. But even then, the sheer visual grandeur sweeps you along, and Gibbons's central themes – the importance of forgiveness, the power of human endurance, the wonder and permanence of nature – hold it all together.