British filmmaker Terence Davies is back with a stirring and gorgeous 1900s romance.
The title is perfect: Distant Voices 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, Chris is left in charge of the farm and the family's money, and begins to eye local lad Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) as a potential marital prospect.
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.
Cast and crew