Agyness Deyn & Kevin Guthrie on making Sunset Song

Terence Davies' much-anticipated adaptation of Sunset Song finally reaches our screens this month. We speak to the film's stars, Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie, about creating the intimacy in Davies' swooning epic

Feature by Lewis Porteous | 30 Nov 2015

Terence Davies' best films are those which focus on memory and loss, his bittersweet exercises in nostalgia mining universal truth from intensely personal experience. Despite being faithful to another man's creative vision, his adaptation of Sunset Song, the classic first instalment of author Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair Trilogy, covers similar ground to his early, most acclaimed work. All the director's staples are present, from brutish, oppressive patriarchs to depictions of beauty amid harsh and austere surroundings. While the text leaves Davies little room for overt autobiographical detail, this latest feature undoubtedly holds a place close to his heart.  

His commitment to the project is evidenced by its lengthy gestation period. Conceived fifteen years ago, Davies spent much of the interim attempting to drum up enough funding to tell the story of Chris, a resilient young field worker whose inner strength allows her to thrive in the face of both a tumultuous family life and the ravages of the First World War.  

That the director struggled to capitalise on his critical cache, even when attaching his name to a popular literary classic, speaks volumes of the British film industry's need to foster homegrown talent. Davies now has much to prove with this elegaic epic, as do the relative newcomers to whom he offered prestigious leading roles. If the movie proves a hit upon release, not only will its creator be vindicated, but stars Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie could find themselves counted within the upper echelons of British acting talent.  

Agyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie in Sunset Song

Following a well-received Scottish premiere, The Skinny finds the stars proudly speculating on the film's shelf life. Guthrie is particularly enthusiastic. “We were attached to it about 18 months before we got anywhere near a camera. Start to finish, then until now, from meeting each other in Soho, that was almost four years,” he reveals, visibly delighted to have his efforts see the light of day. “It's bookended everything I've done on screen until now, and been a big part of our lives. It feels like the legacy of this film is going to be quite long-running, that it's not going to go away any time soon. As should be the case.”  

For Guthrie, already familiar to audiences from his roles in Sunshine on Leith and The Legend of Barney Thomson, Gibbon’s story has been a near lifelong presence. It was first imposed on him, along with countless young Scots, as part of the school curriculum. “It kind of evades my memory that far back, but I did it again at drama school and studied Ewan as a character for one of the exams. I took up the novel quite extensively when we were shooting, but I was well aware of it by that point.”  

The actor appreciates his fortuitous situation of having unconsciously prepared for the role of Chris's husband, but notes that he'd never gone too in depth. “I hadn't played him as such, but it was part of the course. You know, to take a character, a hero from Scottish literature and do a monologue. Alastair Cording did a playscript adaptation and there were more monologues for Ewan in that.”  

By contrast, Deyn's awareness of the book came much later in life. “The first contact I had with it was reading Terence's script. I fell in love with the story and Chris, then went out and got the book. I read the script over and over again, and read student notes on the story as well.”

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While her co-star gives an exemplary turn, it could be argued that Deyn's fresh approach to the text is what allows her to make an iconic character truly her own. “I suppose there's an analytical approach to it, and an emotional approach to it,” she admits. “Both are really important. The analytical approach is more mathematical and scientific. The emotional approach is all about how it evokes feelings in you. I think having both is ideal, really.”  

Certainly, both actors agree that Davies' direction allowed for more instinctive performances than other directors could hope to capture. Guthrie explains that “as an actor, you're interested in your ability to tell the story of a specific character, and the relationship created between these two. Over and above that, the scope of the production had its own epic value. That's Terence's thing to create. The size and scale of it all comes from outwith the intimate nature of our performances. We were conscious of it, but it wasn't our responsibility to make an epic. It was our responsibility to create strong, well-developed, truthful moments that could exist in this epic world.”  

Deyn concurs. “He facilitated this huge space, whether interior or exterior, where the only parameters we were given were the frame. Terence's ability to facilitate atmosphere on set in no way limited us. It was actually liberating to me as an actor. He allows you to create the moment and then captures it, as opposed to imposing the moment upon you and asking you to recreate what he thinks.”  

‘Terence made this film with his heart, and that's infectious’ – Agyness Deyn

Though retired from the industry, Deyn is still best known as a model. While Davies gave her room to articulate her own understanding on Chris, accepting her as a humble, pragmatic farmer’s daughter is a task audiences could justifiably struggle with. Of people's preconceptions, she states “I felt aware of it, and it's important that I did because the character's so close to people's hearts that you want to do it for them and their imaginations. To open their imaginations to the possibility of you even being their Chris in this medium. But Terence made this film with his heart, and that's infectious. We all did.”  

The star is clearly commited to the work's themes, most of which resonate as strongly as they did when the novel was published in the early 30s. “Obviously the story's facilitated through Chris, but what's going on within her is bigger than she can see,” offers Deyn. “All these people she's manouevering around and interacting with aid her journey. She's the land, and is bigger than the village. She survives and endures, and is so inspirational because of that. She's bigger than normality and that's why the story can exist, to communicate that one is bigger than one might think. It's a very unconscious strength she has, never hard, but imbued with an almost gentle quality.  

“I think it's about liberation,” she continues. “It addresses war in a way which I think is about forgiveness and moving on, about being OK with grief. Everyone was grieving at this time and everything was changing. The story communicates that these changes trickle down into the smallest societies and into the smallest young girl. When she grows up, her energy comes from the tiniest source. A young woman can be so big as to encompass the themes of,” Deyn catches her breath, apparently in awe of Gibbons' scope, “humanity and what's going on.” 

It's hard to doubt the stars' sincerity as they enthuse over the franchise with which they could be associated for the foreseeable future. Crucially, neither is intimidated by its stature, Deyn insisting the film should come with baggage. “I think it will always be closely associated with the book, especially in Scotland. Maybe in other places, people will see it as just a film. Take Jane Eyre though, that's been adapted several times and when you watch it you think of the book, if you've read it at least.”  

“It's a little bit like Shakespeare as well,” adds Guthrie. “It's dangerous ground to do more Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night's Dream because everybody has their own understanding and appreciation of them. But this level of text demands such a level of attention in my opinion. The fact it's finally crossed the finish line and been released to the world sparks huge levels of positive or negative interest and imagination, just as the telly version presumably did at the time. It's the kind of text that should be revered the way it is, and get the exposure it deserves.”  

With early notices calling the film everything from a masterpiece to a noble failure, Davies and his cast have at the very least brought a seminal work back into contemporary focus at a time when audiences were at risk of taking it for granted.

Sunset Song is released 4 Dec by Metrodome