Directed by Terence Davies (2015)
From the book review:
The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing…
You can read the full book review by clicking here.
Apparently the making of the film has been a long-term labour of love for director Terence Davies, his first attempt to bring it to the screen having failed in 2003. It has been one of the films I’ve been most eager to see since I fell in love with the book all over again when I recently re-read it after a gap of many years. The book is a profound and deeply moving portrait of a rural society caught up in the changes brought about through modernisation and war at the beginning of the 20th century, culminating with the characters coming together to face an uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.
I wish I was about to rave about the film, but I’m not – well, not in a good way, at least. It’s the most disappointing adaptation I have seen on either big or small screen for years. The book is widely recognised as one of the most significant Scottish novels of the 20th century, and I hoped the film would faithfully reproduce the themes and culture that give it that deserved status.
Imagine my disappointment then to discover that Davies had decided to cast an English actress in the central role of Chris Guthrie – a 32-year-old English actress at that, to play a character who is a child at the start of the book and no more than mid-20s at its end. Agyness Deyn does her best in the role, and her accent is reasonably authentic sounding at points – enough to fool a non-Scottish audience anyway, I would think – but she is totally miscast. She is a former model – tall, fragile and delicate looking. Hardly what one expects an early 20th century Aberdeenshire farmer’s daughter to look like, I fear. However, there’s no doubt she looks good in her underclothes or naked, which is presumably why that’s how she appears for a goodly proportion of the time. But the young girl’s sexual awakening is handled in the book with a kind of harsh integrity which is lost completely by having a mature actress play the role.
Many of the other cast members are Scottish and some of the performances are excellent. Peter Mullan as Chris’ harsh and brutal father is entirely credible, and Kevin Guthrie does well with the character of Chris’ lover and husband, Ewan Tavendale – though Davies’ interpretation of Ewan’s character gives him an innocence and charm in the early days of their relationship that he doesn’t really possess in the book, making his later transformation about as realistic as Jekyll and Hyde. Daniela Nardini, one of our finest Scottish actresses, stands out as Chris’ mother – unfortunately, the character’s early death means this is a tiny role. And Ian Pirie works wonders with the severely reduced role that Davies leaves for Chae, one of the central characters in the book, perhaps as much its heart as Chris herself, but here sidelined to the periphery, as Davies converts the ensemble piece of the book to a narrow concentration on Chris’ early life and love for Ewan.
One of the central themes of the book is the loss of Scottish language and culture due to the anglicisation of the education system, forcing children to speak English rather than their native dialects. What an utterly odd directorial decision then for Davies to anglicise the speech in the film! He uses a rather annoying voiceover to explain all the bits of the book that he fails to portray on the screen, and mentions the question of anglicisation in that, so clearly he didn’t miss the point in the book. He gives as his reason that using authentic dialect would have made the film difficult for viewers unfamiliar with it – I suggest that’s why they invented subtitles. Would he make an Icelandic film in English too? Sadly, perhaps he would.
I won’t even bother to mention my horror at finding that much of the film was shot in New Zealand.
The real disappointment though is the narrowness of the focus of the film, it’s concentration almost entirely on Chris. The book also has Chris at its centre, but through her lets the reader see the whole community. It’s the discussions between the men that show the beginnings of the rise of socialism, the attitudes towards the war in this community so detached from the seat of power, the social strata and structures that must yield to change. Davies allows us about three minutes of this in one scene of the community getting together, with the result that when some of the men decide either to go or refuse to go to war, the viewer is left baffled by their motivation, unable to differentiate between cowardice and principled pacifism. And he takes the community completely out of the ending, leaving us with Chris standing alone – totally wrong and distorting the entire point of the book.
Perhaps it works as a standalone war-time love story for non-Scots. There is some lovely scenery and some of it is even Scottish, but it crawls along from one set-piece scene to another with the camera lingering far too long on overly staged tableaux, never flowing nor achieving a true portrayal of the characters or the culture. By all means, see the film, but please don’t think it is anything other than the palest reflection of the excellent book.
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