Benediction – movie review

Benediction is a complex but ultimately moving biopic about the revered Siegfried Sassoon, one of Britain’s great war time poets. Sassoon wrote about the futility of war, the loss of lives and the waste of a generation on the battlefield. He was also a homosexual who had to hide his sexuality in public. This is director Terence Davies’ second film about a major poet, and it follows A Quiet Passion, his 2016 biopic about the reclusive Emily Dickinson. Rather than follow a conventional narrative structure, he gives Sassoon’s life something of an impressionistic treatment here.

Sassoon (Jack Lowden, who also co-produced) served two years in the trenches and battlefields during WWI, and his experiences opened his eyes to the horrors of war and shaped much of his poetry. Sassoon struggled with a form of PTSD and was sent to a military hospital in Scotland for treatment. He met fellow poet Wilfred Owens (Matthew Tennyson) and Rivers (Ben Daniels), a sympathetic doctor and father figure, also a homosexual who encourages Sassoon to embrace his own sexuality and to continue writing his poetry.

After leaving the hospital, Sassoon is introduced to London society of the Roaring 20s by his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), who is also a close friend and confidante of Oscar Wilde. He has an affair with musician Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a narcissistic artist with a cruel streak. After Novello discards him for another younger toyboy Sassoon has a number of self-destructive affairs with other young men, including the vain Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and Novello’s former lover Glen Shaw (Tom Blyth). Eventually he marries Hester (Kate Phillips), which was apparently a common occurrence amongst gay men of the time to give them an air of respectability. But it is not a happy marriage, as flash forward sequences to an older Sassoon (now played by former Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi) reveal.

Benediction is, arguably, Davies’ most overtly gay film in his long career, and a melancholy tone permeates the material. The film is also an exploration of the tribulations facing gay men in a time when they were unable to express themselves or their sexuality in public. The dialogue is both witty and arch. Although well researched, Davies has obviously taken some liberties with Sassoon’s life. He has a sensitive, quiet and precise style, but his personal attitudes and sentiments lie just beneath the surface, giving the material something of a semi-autobiographical touch as well. He has incorporated plenty of archival footage of the trenches, the horrors of the war with blood and bodies, the conditions of the trenches themselves, which all play out accompanied by the reading of some of Sassoon’s evocative and trenchant anti-war poems.

Lowden (Dunkirk) is superb and delivers a nicely nuanced performance as the damaged and disillusioned Sassoon, wracked by guilt and haunted by the memories of the war, and who was forced to lead something of a sad, loveless life. Not as effective or as engaging are those sequences featuring Capaldi as the older, taciturn and embittered Sassoon reflecting back on his life and trying to build a relationship with his estranged son George (Richard Goulding). The cast includes a number of veteran British actors to flesh out some of the supporting roles, including Geraldine Jones as his mother.

As with most of Davies’ films, Benediction immerses us in the 1920s with some great period detail. The production design from Andy Harris (who also worked with the director on Sunset Song) is superb and captures the decadence of this era. The film is laden with cultural touchstones from the era, including people like Novello, Edith Sitwell and T E Lawrence, and several popular musical numbers. The film has been beautifully shot by Australian cinematographer Nicola Daley (The Handmaid’s Tale), who brings her wealth of experience from working on documentaries to the look of the material. She imbues the film with warm hues, and often works in long takes.

Greg King

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