Acclaimed British filmmaker Terence Davies turns the life and work of World War I soldier, conscientious objector and poet Siegfried Sassoon into a lyrical biopic.
June 29, 2022
To write notable things, does someone need to live a notable life? No, but sometimes they do anyway. To truly capture the bone-chilling, soul-crushing, gut-wrenching atrocities of war, does someone need to experience it for themselves? In the case of Siegfried Sassoon, his anti-combat verse could've only sprung from someone who had been there, deep in the trenches of the Western Front during World War I, and witnessed its harrowing horrors. If you only know one thing about the Military Cross-winner and poet going into Benediction, you're likely already aware that he's famed for his biting work about his time in uniform. There's obviously more to his story and his life, though, as there is to the film that tells his tale. But British writer/director Terence Davies (Sunset Song) never forgets the traumatic ordeal, and the response to it, that frequently follows his subject's name as effortlessly as breathing. Indeed, being unable to ever banish it from one's memory, including Sassoon's own, is a crucial part of this precisely crafted, immensely affecting and deeply resonant movie.
If you only know two things about Sassoon before seeing Benediction, you may have also heard of the war hero-turned-conscientious objector's connection to fellow poet Wilfred Owen. Author of Anthem for Damned Youth, he fought in the same fray but didn't make it back. That too earns Davies' attention, with Jack Lowden (Slow Horses) as Sassoon and Matthew Tennyson (Making Noise Quietly) as his fellow wordsmith, soldier and patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital — both for shell shock. Benediction doesn't solely devote its frames to this chapter in its central figure's existence, either, but the film also knows that it couldn't be more pivotal in explaining who Sassoon was, and why, and how war forever changed him. The two writers were friends, and also shared a mutual infatuation. They were particularly inspired during their times at Craiglockhart as well. In fact, Sassoon mentored the younger Owen, and championed his work after he was killed in 1918, exactly one week before before Armistice Day.
Perhaps you know three things about Sassoon prior to Benediction. If so, you might be aware of Sassoon's passionate relationships with men, too. Plenty of the film bounces between his affairs with actor and singer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine, Treadstone), socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch, Bridgerton) and theatre star Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth, Billy the Kid), all at a time in Britain when homosexuality was outlawed. There's a fated air to each romantic coupling in Davies' retelling, whether or not you know to begin with that Sassoon eventually (and unhappily) married the younger Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, Downton Abbey). His desperate yearning to hold onto someone, and something, echoes with post-war melancholy as well. That said, that sorrow isn't just a product of grappling with a life-changing ordeal, but also of a world where everything Sassoon wants and needs is a battle — even if there's a giddy air to illegal dalliances among London's well-to-do.
Benediction caters for viewers who resemble Jon Snow going in, naturally, although Davies doesn't helm any ordinary biopic. No stranger to creating on-screen poetry with his lyrical films — or to biopics about poets, after tackling Emily Dickinson in his last feature A Quiet Passion — the filmmaker steps through Sassoon's tale like he's composing evocative lines himself. Davies has always been a deeply stirring talent; see: his 1988 debut Distant Voices, Still Lives, 2011's romance The Deep Blue Sea and 2016's Sunset Song, for instance. Here, he shows how it's possible to sift through the ins and outs of someone's story, compiling all the essential pieces in the process, yet never merely reducing it down to the utmost basics. Some biopics can resemble Wikipedia entries re-enacted for the screen, even if done so with flair, but Benediction is the polar opposite.
It must be unthinkable to Davies that his audience could simply pick up standard details about Sassoon by watching a depiction of his existence, rather than become immersed in everything about him — especially how he felt. Benediction plays like the work of someone who wouldn't even dream of such an approach in their worst nightmares. That's true in Lowden's scenes, with the bulk of the movie focused on the younger Sassoon. It remains accurate when Peter Capaldi (The Suicide Squad) features as the older Sassoon, including opposite Gemma Jones (Ammonite) as the older Hester. When the latter graces the picture's immaculately shot frames (by Harlots, Gentleman Jack and upcoming The Handmaid's Tale season five cinematographer Nicola Daley), he's a portrait of man embittered, and he's utterly heartbreaking.
Lowden and Capaldi's performances are as critical to Benediction as Sassoon himself, and Davies as well. They're that fine-tuned, that tapped into the whirlwind of emotions swirling through the man they're playing, and that awash with anger, determination, longing, loneliness, defiance, despair, resentment and tragedy. (Yes, that's a complicated and chaotic mix, and 100-percent steeped in everything that's thrown Sassoon's way). As overseen by Davies, Lowden and Capaldi are also two halves of a whole, not that either actor gives anything less than their all, let alone a fraction of a portrayal. It's devastating to see how and why Lowden's charisma eventually gives way to Capaldi's loathing, but that's the plight that both men are charged with surveying, relaying and helping echo from the screen — exceptionally so.
For all of the feeling coursing through Benediction — including when using archival war footage to hark back to the combat that so altered his central figure, rather than taking the 1917 re-creation route — Davies remains a rigorous, fastidious and controlled filmmaker. The feature's 137-minute running time feels as lengthy as it is. While there's a rhythm to Alex Mackie's (Mary Shelley) editing, the movie is methodically paced. Every single image seen is meticulous in its composition, too. Watching Benediction is an active act, rather than a case of being swept away. That matches everything that the film conveys about Sassoon's experiences and the turmoil they caused him, of course. Still, the art of using restraint and precision to stir up big emotions, and to whip and whisk them around so that they're inescapable, is also on display here — and it's one that this exquisite picture's driving force dispenses with as much talent as his subject did with his poetry.