Sunset Song: Former supermodel takes on Scottish classic

By Steven Brocklehurst
BBC Scotland news website

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image captionAgyness Deyn stars in Sunset Song as Chris Guthrie

Former supermodel Agyness Deyn admits she knew nothing of the classic Scottish novel Sunset Song before she got involved in acclaimed director Terence Davies's new film but now cannot believe it is not better known.

"It is right up there with Jane Eyre," says the Lancastrian actress who has taken on the role of Chris Guthrie, a young woman who sees family trauma on a farm in Aberdeenshire merge into global catastrophe as World War One devastates her remote rural village.

Deyn says the novel was "ahead of its time" in how it depicted a strong female character growing into womanhood.

She says: "It is not that popular in England and it should be. I was so moved. It really profoundly affected me."

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image captionPeter Mullan is the abusive head of the Guthrie family in the film set in north east Scotland

Lewis Grassic Gibbon's novel, set in the fictional Mearns village of Kinraddie in the lead up to WWI, was voted Best Scottish Book of All Time at the Edinburgh Book Festival a decade ago.

But the film's director, who first came to the story through the 1971 BBC television adaptation, has spent 18 years trying to get the finance to bring the novel to the big screen.

He says it is a wonderful story with universal themes of the endurance of the human spirit and "playing the cards you are dealt".

"At the end Chris forgives all the suffering and all the hurt and therefore she hopes," he says.

"Because without hope life is unbearable."

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image captionKevin Guthrie plays Ewan Tavendale

The suffering comes first at the hands of her father, played by Peter Mullan, and later from her husband Ewan Tavendale.

Kevin Guthrie, who plays Ewan, had studied Sunset Song at drama school and was only a few months out of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow when he first got the part but it has taken almost four years to make it to cinemas.

Guthrie, who has since starred in Sunshine on Leith, says taking on the role was a "massive responsibility" because he was so passionate about the character.

"I'm in love with Ewan," he says.

"For me I had to fall in love with him if I was to have any chance of the audience coming on a journey with me."

Despite some shocking and brutal scenes, Guthrie is positive Tavendale is a good man.

"I have no doubt in my mind at all that it is entirely inflicted on him because of what he had to endure. The story unearths to a microscopic degree the true horror of war."

He adds: "Terence was clear from the outset that we were not a vilify Ewan but to make it as raw and almost unbearable as possible.

"You get to the end of the movie and you do feel the heartbreak and loss on a tragic scale."

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image captionDeyn says Gibbon wrote a strong female lead and was years ahead of his time
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Sunset Song, written by Gibbon in 1932, is the first in a trilogy of books referred to as A Scots Quair.

They chart a journey from through the dying of the old certainties of rural life before the war into a more modern urban existence of the 1930s.

Davies says he has not read the other books because he knows he would be tempted to make them and he would never get the money to do it.

The director had wanted to make Sunset Song after House of Mirth in 2000, much of which was filmed in Glasgow, but could not get the script financed.

Her returned to it after his last film The Deep Blue Sea but it has still taken four years to get to the cinemas.

Deyn is a massive fan of Davies's work but the director claimed to have never heard of the model before she auditioned for him.

However when she did he had a "feeling in my stomach" that she was right for the part.

"I can just tell when someone's right," he says. "I does not matter if they are a "name" or not, if I feel they are right they get the role."

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image captionThe film charts the life of Chris Guthrie through her teenage years and her relationship with her husband Ewan

The director claims that the "tiny amount" of finance for Sunset Song created problems for the production.

The harvesting scenes were shot in New Zealand because they had to have summer weather in February and because of tax breaks, and the interiors were shot in Luxembourg as it provided money for the film.

But the crew spent five weeks around Ballater and Braemar in Royal Deeside shooting the real Aberdeenshire countryside.

Guthrie says it is a "truly authentic representation of Scotland".

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image captionAgyness Deyn and Kevin Guthrie in Fettercairn where some of the film was shot

However, the director, who is from Liverpool, is concerned that his efforts to deal with the accents of the characters might not meet with universal approval in Scotland.

Davies says: "If things are set in Liverpool and not properly done I can tell. I do hope that if it is not as accurate as it ought to be they forgive me."

In the books, Gibbon tried to mould the English language and some Scottish words into the cadences of the spoken speech of the rural Aberdeenshire farmers.

But Davies says: "I could not have used a lot of the phrases because no-one would know what they mean.

"There was one man in the threshing scene who speaks with an Aberdeen accent. I knew what the lines were and I could not understand it."

He adds: "I think if there is a problem it will occur when people who know the accent say that it is not accurate because my ear is not acute enough."

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Davies says that he has tried to achieve a more general Scottish accent, allowing Glaswegians Mullan and Guthrie to concentrate more on their role than the precise north east vowels.

"In my defence I could not afford everyone to have a voice coach and we could only afford that for Agyness," Davies says.

"The rest I just hope people are not irritated by the fact it is not completely accurate."

Deyn says she is not worried about the reaction to her accent.

"You just put in the hours and do the best you can," she says.

"I was definitely so moved by the story and I threw my heart and soul into it so I hope that's enough."