Terence Davies' Sunset Song is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous movie about how hideously difficult life could be in rural Scotland at the beginning of the 20th century. The contrast between aesthetics and content at first feels jarring, then hypnotic, and finally, like the whole point of the film. As the main character Chris, played by onetime model Agyness Deyn, comes to realize, "nothing endured but the land," and the people wresting a living out of it are mere flickers in comparison. The land's surpassing loveliness, captured in golden tones by cinematographer Michael McDonough, exists in indifference to the story being told.
That story's often a rough one, encompassing abuse, marital rape, and natural hardships, but it's broken up by periods of ebullient happiness. Chris grows up in the shadow of a domineering father (Peter Mullan, in the kind of role he can play in his sleep). When he falls ill and requires her care, Chris's dreams of becoming a teacher are over. After his death, she comes into her own, finally in control of the farm and her life, choosing for herself a sweet-faced local man named Ewan (Kevin Guthrie) to marry. When, in a cruel twist, World War I arrives, sweeping him up and returning him as violent and short-tempered as the parent from which she escaped, it's another in a line of heartbreaks for Chris. Deyn's subdued but luminous performance grows in resonance along with the character's strength, which, like the land Chris loves, is grounded in persistence.
How to see it: Sunset Song is available on Blu-ray and DVD, and for digital rental/purchase.