This isn't your usual period movie. A powerfully emotional depiction of rural Scottish life at the turn of the 20th century, Terence Davies' drama is both strikingly earthy and artfully beautiful. Based on the classic 1932 novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbons, it's a gritty story that takes a deeply personal approach to both the time and place, building complex characters that are so easy to identify with that we feel each surge of happiness and heartbreak.
It's set in The Mearns, in the Scottish north east, where Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) grew up on her family farm hoping to one day become a teacher. But her perpetually pregnant mother (Daniela Nardini) simply can't take any more of this, and her sensitive brother Will (Jack Greenlees) moves to get away from their hardened father John (Peter Mullan), leaving Chris to care for him. Eventually she ends up running the farm herself, and finally finds some happiness when she falls for nice-guy neighbour Ewan (Kevin Guthrie). She worries about him becoming like her father, but their marriage is blissfully sweet. Until the Great War breaks out and he enlists to join the fight.
The story's main focus is on the way the demands of life change us in both obvious and subtle ways. This gives the film a complexity that gets deep under the skin, making the themes timeless while also challenging preconceptions. For example, instead of just being a villainous brute, John's violence might be a symptom of his experiences. And Chris' tough-minded tenacity may come from the same place that pushed her mother over the edge. Like us, these are people trying to steer their destinies in the face of everyday pressures and the forces of nature. And yet the film never feels terribly bleak. It's hard and gruelling, but also hopeful.
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Chris is a young heroine from a rural Scottish community, with an intense passion for life and a loyalty to the often unforgiving land, who has given her heart to the unsettled Ewan.
With a dysfunctional family, who have already faced dark times, Chris choses to devote herself to the land as World War One begins changing the world around her. But when Ewan decides to enlist in the army, Chris faces greater hardships than ever before as her once happy marriage crumbles.
As all seems lost Chris, a woman of remarkable strength, is able to draw from the ancient land at look to the future, even if the modern world is threatening everything she holds dear.
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Hester (Weisz) is tormented by the trajectory of her life: the wife of High Court judge Sir William (Beale), she has fallen for the dashing Battle of Britain pilot Freddie (Hiddleston), who lets their physical relationship dissipate as he struggles to find a role in society after the war. Now isolated and desperate, Hester attempts suicide but only succeeds in making her life worse. Freddie is furious, and William is unnervingly caring. She's caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: is there any way she can have a happy life?
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Davies' films (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) have always looked to the past as both memory and memory's sometimes distorted recollections. Much like last year's My Winnipeg of Guy Maddin, Davies looks at both the past of a city and his own past there, twisting both into a funhouse mirror. Maddin, of course, barely gets out of his childhood alive, but for Davies, his Liverpool is a state of lost innocence killed when modernity and puberty set in. He quotes Shelley in the opening shot, an image of a slowly opening curtain in a movie house, "The happy highways where I went and cannot come again." Davies is already placing Liverpool as a mythic town of his childhood and boldly states, "If Liverpool did not exist, it would have to be invented."
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Welcome then to The House of Mirth, a period piece which bears little happiness for those within. Or, ultimately, for those in the audience.
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