IT has taken 18 years for one of Britain’s leading filmmakers to realise his cinematic vision for a classic Scottish novel.
Now Terence Davies’ lavish adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, his much-loved story rites of passage story set in the remote Aberdeenshire countryside, has finally made it onto the big screen.
Former model Agyness Deyn, who has won widespread plaudits, in her first major film role, as farmer’s daughter Chris Guthrie, joined the director and co-star Kevin Guthrie in Edinburgh to unveil the First World War drama on Armistice Day.
The English actress, who is in the running to be named British film’s best newcomer next month dor her portrayal of the grief-stricken character, told The Scotsman she mastered a Scottish accent to help win her the role after the casting directors spotted her in a play in London’s west end.
She revealed how she also prepared for her audition by immersing herself in the 83-year-old novel - named the best Scottish book of all time 10 years ago.
Lancashire-born Deyn said the writer had been “ahead of his time” because of the way he wrote about such a strong female character as she grows into womanhood.
Guthrie, whose previous films include Sunshine on Leith, plays Deyn’s on-screen husband, Ewan Tavendale, whose happy life with new bride Chris is turned upside-down with the outbreak of war.
The 26-year-old revealed that he and Deyn, 32, spent 18 months preparing for their roles before production got underway last spring.
The Scotsman was given behind-the-scenes access to the film during its three-week shoot on location in Aberdeenshire last year. Some scenes were filmed in New Zealand, which stands in for the Mearns countryside during the harvest season.
Sunset Song has inspired VisitScotland to produce a map of the film locations, including the Glenmuick Estate, where fake standing stones were erected for the production, the tiny village of Fettercairn, which saw the invasion of a flock of sheep for a romantic encounter between Chris and Ewan, and Arbuthnott Church, where a pivotal sermon scene was filmed.
Liverpool-born Davies, whose previous films include The Neon Bible and The Deep Blue Sea, began discussing an adaption with Sunset Song’s executive producer, Edinburgh-based Bob Last, after the pair worked on The House of Mirth, the period drama which brought X Files star Gillian Anderson to Glasgow in the late 1990s.
Deyn said: “It’s a dream to do a role like this with someone like him for the first time.
He is a genius and a legend of a filmmaker. I started watching films in a different way after I watched his films. He is such a gentleman, he is so caring and he nurtures you.
“I was just so moved by the story when I read the book. It was pre-feminism, but also embodied that whole thing about a woman trucking on through this male world. I feel it’s still really current at the moment with the younger generation.
“He (Gibbon) was so ahead of his time. He was writing about women in a way that no-one had ever done before in this really liberating way, which was kind of unheard of back then.
“It was very risque at the time and it still kind of is when you read it now. It has that quality and excitement that drives you, but it is also so old, which is what makes it magical.
“It is amazing the way that Terence has read it and captured the whole sense of it.”
Guthrie credited his drama training at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow with helping him to win the role, as he had studied the character of Ewan for his exams there. He asked to perform one of the story’s final war-time scenes at his audition with Davies.
He added: “I knew in the back of my head that if I nailed the scene there might just be a chance that I would get it, or it would at least have a lasting impact. That’s exactly what happened.
“It’s been an incredible film to work on. I had high expectations for this job, but it’s surpassed every one of them.
“Terence is an absolute master at what he does. He creates a really amazing atmosphere on set. He is very articulate, very aware and very sensitive to who he is working with.
“Agyness is an absolute sweetheart. We were attached to the film for about 18 months before we started filming as it too a long while to get it up and running. We had screen-tested together, so we exchanged emails and made a point of keeping in touch.
“We were able to swap stories and ideas, and process the film from a distance, as well as feel that we could start to develop a relationship between us as actors as well.
“We got on really well and had a lot of trust in each other, which for a job like this, with two characters who are going to leave you really exposed, is hugely important.”
Davies said he had first been been drawn to Gibbon’s novel when he was an 18-year-old accountant after seeing a BBC adaptation, which turned the book into a series.
“It’s been a long struggle to get it to the screen. I couldn’t get any work at all for 10 years after The House of Mirth.
“The film industry in Britain has this silly idea that we have to make films to rival the Americans. What is wrong with looking at these islands and the stories that come from them? I felt very deeply that I wanted to do the book justice.”
Deyn was the first actress to audition for the role of Chris Guthrie. Davies said he was convinced immediately that he had found his lead actor.
He said: “She came in and gave a wonder audition and I just thought: ‘we’ve found her.’
“I just get a feeling in my stomach. Once I feel that for anyone I have complete and utter belief in them. I didn’t know that she had been a model - I know nothing about that kind of popular culture. But I would have cast her anyway.”