'Benediction' - Terence Davies' biopic of British poet Siegfried Sassoon

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 14, 2022
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Jack Lowden as a young Siegfried Sassoon in 'Benediction'
Jack Lowden as a young Siegfried Sassoon in 'Benediction'

He is considered by many critics to be England's greatest living filmmaker, even though he has made less than ten movies. Terence Davies would also be on anyone's list of the foremost gay writer/directors. He has said in interviews that his films are always about outsiders.

With the gay English poet Siegfried Sassoon as the subject of "Benediction," his ninth film, he's found a worthy rebel castigating British classicism and sexual mores. He has also created one of the year's best queer films.

Sassoon (1886-1967), (Jack Lowden) fought on the Western Front in the First World War and was decorated with the Military Cross for his courage. Returning to convalesce in Britain and horrified by the preventable huge sacrifices of life, he wrote his "Soldier's Declaration of 1917" to his commanding officer, highlighting the suffering of British troops, stating his refusal to perform any more military duties. He admitted, "I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it."

The letter caused a huge stir in Parliament and in the British press. Sassoon could have been court-martialed and shot for desertion, but a skittish government, not wanting to execute a war hero and prominent family connections, instead led him to being officially diagnosed with "shell shock." He was summarily sent to Craiglockhart, a war hospital near Edinburgh, Scotland.

At Craiglockhart, he encounters a sympathetic gay doctor W. H.R. Rivers (Ben Daniels) to whom he confesses his predisposition for "the love that dares not speak its name." More significantly, he meets poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). They become friends and then romantic partners, though there is debate whether their union was ever sexually consummated. Regardless, they encourage each other in their work. Owen recovers and is sent back to France where he was killed in battle in 1918, just days before the war ended.

Sassoon is acclaimed as an extraordinary poet and in the post-war years figures as one of Waugh's Bright Young Things, becoming a popular party guest among England's aristocracy, a star for awhile in London's literary circles and theater world. But he soon realizes he's out of fashion with the era's frivolity.

He has affairs with Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale, who won a Tony Award this week for Best Actor in a Play in "The Lehmann Trilogy"), a friend of Oscar Wilde, the composer and cruel matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) with the immortal backstabbing line, "If you want fidelity, Siegfried, buy a pet," actor/director Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), and famed narcissistic dilettante/author Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch).

Jack Lowden and Matthew Tennyson in 'Benediction'  

Novello and Tennant are his great loves but they are abusive towards him, which adds to his cachet as the anguished artist enmeshed in confusion, betrayal, and heartache. Davies draws the link that Sassoon sabotaging himself romantically is a sublimated compensation for his wartime traumas

Heartbreaking realizations
As did many other gay men of his era, Sassoon seeks conformity and marries Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, later Gemma Jones), who knows about his homosexuality and nominally accepts it. They produce a son George (Richard Golding). The older, unhappy Sassoon is played by Peter Capaldi and throughout the film the younger Sassoon will morph into the older Sassoon, part of Davies' technique of conflating past, present, and future, to keep memory alive.

Sassoon becomes a cantankerous, conservative curmudgeon who deplores pop music and converts to Catholicism. His son asks him "Why do you hate the modern world?", to which Sassoon replies, "Because it's younger than I am." Disillusioned and forgotten, feeling he's wasted his life, he refuses to heal old wounds mostly self-inflicted.

Poet Siegfried Sassoon  

He comes to regard Owen (as did most scholars) as the greater poet, a heartbreaking realization of his own unfulfilled talent. He could make the war pain public, but his own interior struggles about his sexuality had to remain private. Thus, only melancholy remains, with a final devastating scene.

Davies' poetic atmospheric style is able to replicate Sassoon's psychological and emotional turmoil through sounds and luminous visual images, so viewers can feel it within themselves.

For example, Davies uses archival silent-film documentary footage of men signing up to serve in the war along with footage of cattle herding with a voiceover of Sassoon's poetry conveying the doom, terror, and impending casualties, far more effectively than a battle scene.

This sadness, regret, and survivor's guilt hung over Sassoon his entire life. It's as if he's shouldering the shattering losses, the inhumanity, and hypocrisy the country itself never fully reconciled, becoming the voice of a generation long silenced and unable to speak for themselves. He honors and redeems the martyred soldiers through his poetry.

What we experience is Sassoon's loneliness and isolation, compounded of course by his sexuality during a time when homosexuality was illegal, never acknowledged publicly (unless in a scandal), and marginalized by a society that refused to accept people as they were. We sense his isolation because of the PTSD of the war but also because he could never accept being gay. The humanity sacrificed in war contrasts with the humanity denied homosexuals.

Austere pacing
"Benediction" is a biopic, but certainly not the kind Hollywood would ever produce, which moves linearly from one event to the next, while Davies sashays from one emotional moment to another. Sassoon is the cautionary tragic angry figure looking for answers in the wrong places, unwilling to seek within himself the salvation he never quite found.

Some audience members might chafe at the austerity, deliberate pacing, and understated acting. Performers in Davies' films always take second place to aesthetics. Sounds and images express characters' innermost feelings more than dialogue. Davies doesn't do uplifting or happy, but is always truthfully heartbreaking.

Peter Capaldi as the elder Siegfried Sassoon in 'Benediction'  

Lowden is effective in conveying Sassoon's tenderness and vulnerability, but Capaldi is better because he gets to express Sassoon's nastiness and anguish. How the young Sassoon became the old Sassoon is the arc of the movie. Davies takes his time getting there but is never boring.

It's a journey well worth taking, as once again for LGBTQ viewers, Davies reveals the subjective conflict between the fulfillment of desire and the oppression of convention, but reminding the audience how we remain at the mercy of time and the awareness of our own mortality.

Benediction is the blessing at the end of a public worship service. With Davies' Catholic background, the title is surely not a coincidence. Let's hope "Benediction" the film is not a closing prayer or final moment in Davies' career. One gets the sense even at age 76, he has more to offer. "Benediction" is a cinematic blessing and a substantial masterwork in the Davies' canon.


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