In one of the year's best films, Terence Davies serves up a masterful, heartbreaking biography of British WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon.
Combat ruins good character.
So wrote Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam. In this psychological classic, he synthesized state of the art PTSD knowledge with a deep dive into Homer’s epics.
In Benediction, writer/director Terence Davies reaches the same conclusion with his portrait of Siegfried Sassoon, British poet of the Great War. Davies also reminds us why we still go to the movies, in our age of plot-and-set-by-numbers superhero entertainments and too many television offerings to shake a remote at. His hyperliterate script is affecting and witty, the rare scenario I’d be pleased to read in print form. His synesthetic visuals give us the world through Sassoon’s senses.
Davies’ stylistic choices bear the imprint of a gifted auteur. In his hands, music seldom underlines emotions, amplifying the power of its rare usage, particularly at the very end. He doesn’t attempt to show the horror of trench warfare in the immersive videogame fashion of 1917. Instead, he savvily inserts grainy black and white period footage of antiquated tanks and desperate soldiers running across ravaged landscapes, along with sepia stills of the wounded and dead.
Sassoon is one of several British poets who memorably used their pen to depict the devastation of war. They’re perhaps most famously represented by Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est.” During the course of Benediction, Sassoon delivers a couple of poems in voiceover that were unfamiliar to me, the final example reducing me to tears.
Benediction opens midway through Sassoon’s wartime service. After two years as a courageous officer adored by the enlisted men under him, he’s sickened by politicians’ cynical prolonging of the war. He daringly writes as much in a letter to the press and to Parliament, a potential capital offense at the time. His officers, with an eye towards public opinion, choose to send him to an Edinburgh hospital for shellshocked soldiers, rather than court-martial him.
There, Sassoon befriends and mentors Owen. Both are surprised to find acceptance for their homosexuality from a sympathetic psychiatrist. Alas, this is only a peaceful interlude before both return to the Western Front.
Davies chose to have two actors play Sassoon. Jack Lowden portrays him in his 30s, as a military officer and in a shallow postwar existence, jumping from fling to fling. Lowden gives us a Sassoon whose gentlemanly coolness vies with defiance of military hierarchy and rebellion against 1920s heteronormative society.
Peter Capaldi, as Sassoon in late middle age, is all bitterness and sharp edges, scarcely capable of warmth and kindness. He longs for the plaudits received by his contemporary T.S. Eliot, while simultaneously despising them.
It’s instructive to compare Benediction to Davies’ previous feature, the 2016 Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion. (Despite a career spanning almost 40 years, Davies has only directed nine features.) Both films have an attentive eye to period detail, but A Quiet Passion felt dry and stilted. Literature professors might revile me for saying this, but I far prefer Molly Shannon’s exuberant Wild Nights with Emily or Hailee Steinfeld’s anachronistic yet moving Dickinson.
Like the protagonists in A Quiet Passion, Benediction’s characters are eloquent to a degree demanding suspension of disbelief. However, they don’t suffer from the earlier film’s stuffy restraint.
Unfortunately, Sassoon’s rapid succession of partners—his mother disparagingly labels them his pretty boys—are scarcely distinguishable. The lone exceptions are Wilfred Owen (a so-vulnerable-you-want-to-hug-him Matthew Tennyson) and actor/composer Ivor Novello (a vicious carnivore of a man, as played by Jeremy Irvine).
This lack of distinctiveness makes the middle third of Benediction drag in comparison to the wartime period and Sassoon’s later life. Though it’s interesting to observe Davies’ portrait of England’s interwar queer society, I wish we could’ve seen more of Sassoon’s late life.
On the other hand, the interchangeability of Sassoon’s partners is probably the point. Losing his brother Hamo and a beloved friend to combat rendered him incapable of intimacy. A late-life conversion to Catholicism, seen in one of the early temporal jumps between Lowden and Capaldi, is a desperate flailing to insert meaning and connection into an empty life.
Benediction is not the type of film you see for uplift. But sometimes the best art is created to break your heart. Davies has succeeded in showing the ruination of war, long after the artillery ceases firing.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Benediction is now playing in theaters.