There aren’t many car-chases, explosions or potential toy tie-ins in Sunset Song, the latest film from British director Terence Davies.
In fact, let’s be honest, there are none at all, although there’s plenty of poetically-shot rain, mud and suffering in this intimate epic about family, land and friendship, set as the First World War looms. But that should come as no surprise to admirers of the work of, arguably, one of Britain’s greatest film directors, and certainly one of the most individualistic, unimpeachably idiosyncratic and tenacious in an industry not exactly noted for its artistic determination and probity.
There are many who would argue that Davies‘ beautiful but often harrowing film Distant Voices, Still Lives remains the crowning achievement of British cinema in the dark days of the 80s, or even beyond. Others might equally sing the praises of The Neon Bible, House Of Mirth or his brilliantly inventive and heartfelt Liverpool Capital Of Culture project Of Time And The City.
Despite that loyalty and admiration, his films typically take a long, long time to get to the screen, as he ruefully admits.
“I’m an acquired taste and a lot of people don’t like what I do. They think it’s far too slow and solemn and poker up the arse, misery and death. They have a right to think that, you can’t please everybody.
“The two things that are most difficult to deal with are despair and literally having no money so being in huge amounts of debt. I just hate that, I’m like my mother in that respect, but there’s no way I can keep going without getting into debt. It does get very depressing when you have to think ‘can I afford groceries this week, can I afford to go out?’ You do feel demeaned by that and you can think ‘what am I struggling for?’
“But then I listen to Shostakovich or Bruckner and I think ‘well, if they can do it, there’s no excuse for me not to carry on’.”
Even by Davies’ standards of long-gestating projects, Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic story of a young woman’s endurance against the hardships of rural Scottish life, has been a long time coming.
His love of the story, he recalls, began many years ago “when the Sunday night serial on BBC1 went out in ancient black & white, Sunset Song was one of them and its grandeur has stayed with me”.
He adds: “In those days, of course, you couldn’t record anything, so I waited every Sunday for the latest of the six 40 minute episodes and I loved it so I went out and bought and read the book, when I was still working as a junior book-keeper in an accountancy practice.
“It is a dark and brooding novel, both symbolic and rhapsodic, about the power and cruelty of both family and nature, about the enduring presence of the land and the courage of the human spirit in the face of hardship.”
When he finished his Edith Wharton adaptation The House Of Mirth in 2000, Bob Last, the film’s executive producer, asked Davies if there was anything else he’d like to do.
“I said, ‘yes, Sunset Song’ and he knew of it because he had lived in Scotland. We got little bits of money between 2000 and 2003 to write the script, which we sent to the then UK Film Council who sat on it for six months before they said ‘it hasn’t got legs’. That was it, and very crushing. So I did some other films and then four years ago we had another conversation about it. I said ‘yes, I’d still love to do it, but you know the problems we’ve had’.
“Anyway, we got the money to shoot it but not really enough. We all took a risk and it was a very hard shoot, with very long days especially in Scotland when the rain and wind were really awful. I really didn’t think we would pull it off, and we couldn’t have done without the commitment from everyone, including actors who had to stay with us for three years. Kevin Guthrie turned work down for two years in order to remain available. They have to live, of course, so it was extraordinary and so moving that they’d done that.”
There are some extraordinary performances in the film but none more so than Agyness Deyn, who plays the indomitable Chris Guthrie and is centre-stage almost the whole time. The Littleborough-born model turned actress has certainly come a very long way from the days when she was still known as Laura Hollins and worked at a fish and chip shop in Ramsbottom. But it turns out that the unworldly Davies was unaware of her past life gracing catwalks and magazine covers.
“I just know nothing about that particular part of popular culture,” he admits. “So when I saw Agyness audition, I didn’t know that she was a model and that didn’t matter. It was just ‘whoever gives the best audition, she’ll get the role’. She was the first person in on the first day and I said straightaway ‘we’ve found her!’ I just had that feeling in my stomach. Of course we saw a lot of other girls too and some of them were generous enough to accept other, supporting, roles.”
The Scottish scenery positively glows in the sunshine in the film, starkly contrasting with the grimness of some of the other scenes.
“The seasons are important to the book, they’re like another character. So we had to have sun but we certainly couldn’t rely on the weather in Scotland. So the sun-dappled scenes had to be shot in New Zealand. However, we got to New Zealand and they’d had the worst storms there in 50 years. Then the weather broke and we had three and a half days of wonderful sunshine, thank God.”
Fortunately, Davies has long since become adept at stretching a tiny budget by shooting very quickly.
“The script that I finished in 2003 was the shooting script. I only ever do three versions, with a polish on the third. Then that’s the shooting script with every track, pan, dissolve, all the music, everything in it, so that you know exactly how you can husband your resources to save money.”
All of a sudden, after sometimes going years between films, he has another film in the final stages of dubbing for an early 2016 release.
“I discovered her poetry when I was about 18, from Claire Bloom reading her poems on television. I was still just working as a book-keeping accountant but I went out and bought them because I loved the poetry.”
Dickinson’s poetry is now widely admired but was little read in her lifetime. In fact, only a dozen of around 1,800 poems were published while she was alive, and even her family were unaware of the extent of her work despite the fact that she seems to have rarely left the house, let alone Amherst, Massachusetts.
A poet who basically stayed at home just writing poetry and letters until she died young? Sounds like an ideal Terence Davies project, I tease.
“Even if you stay at home all the time that doesn’t mean that the life is dull, it can be just as powerful as going all over the world,” he rebukes me, while Nixon has said “when I read what Terence had written, I was consumed by the character he had so beautifully put on the page. Emily Dickinson’s words and Terence’s somehow dovetail to create a heady elixir. When I put the script down, I knew it was a story that I simply have to be part of.”
And there’s more…
“There are two more [films], would you believe?” says Davies. “Next Autumn I’m going to start shooting a film based on a contemporary American novel called Mother Of Sorrows by Richard McCann, which was sent to me out of the blue and I really liked. I say ‘contemporary’ but it stops in 1980 which is about as contemporary as I get. I’ve also just been commissioned to do a film about Siegfried Sassoon for release in 2018 to mark the anniversary of the end of the First World War.”
A startling amount of activity on the horizon then, but, just as I’m about to leave Davies to get ready for his Q&A session at Manchester’s HOME, I get an almost equally surprising response to a throwaway question as to how well, or even if, this most English of film-maker’s films play outside this country.
“I never thought my films would travel abroad, I just thought they could do reasonably well here. Yet this year alone there have been full retrospectives in Mexico, Chile and Portugal. Of Time and the City was invited to 110 film festivals and, much to my amazement, there are 70 schools all over the world who show it as a teaching tool. That came out of the blue too.
“When Of Time And The City got a standing ovation at Cannes I just caught myself thinking ‘I wonder what they make of Julian and Sandy?’ They must surely have thought that was incomprehensible, especially with the subtitles.
“So, and only God knows why, they actually seem to do rather well, to my astonishment and delight.”
Photo of Terence Davies by Chris Payne
Sunset Song is screening at HOME, Manchester and nationwide