Terence Davies is one of the living masters, a filmmaker who has never made a bad movie and has made several great ones. His latest serves as a reminder of his nuance and grace as it tells the life story of Siegfried Sassoon, a famous World War I poet. Davies allows this unique biopic to unfold like a poem, moving in and out of chapters of Sassoon’s life, including flash forwards to closer to the end of it, as he considers his legacy. Like a lot of Davies’ historical dramas, it feels deeply personal to the filmmaker, one who may too be questioning his place in artistic history. When Siegfried’s son tells him, “Most people live for the moment, you live for eternity,” it feels like something that could be said to Davies too, a director whose films will live forever.
The opening scenes of “Benediction” set up a tone of memory or even dream. It opens with Sassoon (a stunning Jack Lowden, doing easily the best work of his career) and his brother attending a symphony before shifting to footage of the growing World War I, to which both men will soon be shipped. Only one will return. Sassoon comes back with deep trauma that sends him to a Scottish hospital to recover. Davies layers Sassoon’s poetry read aloud by Lowden with archival, grainy footage from the war, enhancing a sense of detached lyricism, and yet he also doesn’t forget to give it all an emotional undercurrent. It’s there in Sassoon’s impassioned criticism of the war and in the way he forms bonds with his doctor and another patient and fellow poet named Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson).
After the war, Sassoon’s life becomes a series of romances, including a notable one with someone who seems to be his opposite, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), who Sassoon’s mother calls “amusing but unpleasant.” Sassoon seems to be consistently drawn to men who criticize and almost emotionally abuse him, as if he thinks he deserves it. Years later, we meet Sassoon as an older man, played by Peter Capaldi, who is converting to Catholicism and tells his son that he’s seeking something “unchanging.” Sassoon’s life has been one of inconsistency, questioning his sexuality, place in society, and artistic ability. It makes sense that he would try to find stability before he no longer has a chance to search for it.
“Benediction” is a story of the impactful moments and relationships in our lives, the ones that a poet like Sassoon (and Davies) turns into art. But it’s also about what’s lost over the course of a life—a brother and a lover to war, a partner to his career, an artistic passion to the pain of the world. It is a gorgeous, lyrical, moving film. We should expect nothing less from Terence Davies.
While Davies has been something of a celebrity at TIFF for the right people—his films regularly premiere there—the event is still one of the biggest of the year for more traditional red carpet names like Jessica Chastain, here with two films this year. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the more traditional of the two (and my review will run tomorrow along with an interview with the star by Nell Minow), but it actually follows a very different world premiere in that of John Michael McDonagh’s adaptation of “The Forgiven” by Lawrence Osborne. A tense study of culture clashes in the Moroccan desert, it features a very strong ensemble who struggle to hold together one of McDonagh’s thinner scripts. The result is a film that struggles to find its identity, lacking the real teeth that it promises in its set-up as it loses its way in the sand.
David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) are drinking and driving their way to a lavish party at a house in the middle of the desert. It’s late at night and David has had too much to drink. He’s speeding. A young Moroccan boy steps out into the road to sell some fossils to the tourists and David plows into him. They put his body in the car and continue on to the party, where their host (Matt Smith) helps them figure out what to do. Then the boy’s father comes to claim the body, and he insists David comes with him.
As David has a long journey of his conflicted soul, Jo embraces her demons, drinking, partying, and flirting with a young man who catches her eye, played by Christopher Abbott, who has palpable chemistry with Chastain. Everyone sounds a bit overwritten in terms of dialogue, but Chastain and Abbott find the haughty socialite tone that makes it work, especially in their flirtation scenes. They have an old-fashioned movie star connection.
Sadly, the set-up for “The Forgiven” doesn’t have much of a follow through. There’s something interesting about one half of a couple getting deeper while the other gets shallower, but there’s just not enough to this story of beautiful people contrasted against a harsh landscape. I wasn’t convinced all the politics and commentary on cultural tourism really holds up. It feels like a very white perspective on Morocco, although that is arguably embedded in the narrative. It’s about people who don’t understand the people on the land in which they have decided to party. At one point, someone says that it “Feels like a country where a useless man could be happy.” The idea that a death leads a useless man to question his happiness is a rich one, I just wish McDonagh dug into it with more gusto.
There’s a similar meandering quality to Stephen Karam’s adaptation of his own award-winning play “The Humans,” a deeply frustrating film that also has interesting ideas given no direction or shape. Karam makes his directorial debut with this text, and it feels like that was probably a mistake as a veteran could have figured out how to open up this work in a more cinematic, less precious way. Karam’s play was highly acclaimed for its set design, using a two-floored apartment in New York to chronicle the growing anxiety and tension of life in the 2010s. To mimic that forced perspective, Karam shoots his drama through doors from other rooms, rarely showing us the faces of the people actually talking, turning us into detached observers when the only way this story works is if we come to identify with the people involved.
The ensemble is undeniably strong. Richard Jenkins is the stand-out as Erik, husband to Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell). The parents have come to the NYC apartment of their daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun) and brought Erik’s mother (June Squibb) and Brigid’s sister (Amy Schumer). The film unfolds as a series of conversations around Brigid’s Chinatown duplex as Karam explores the emotional minefields of a working-class family around Thanksgiving. The passive-aggressive exchanges and hints of darker secrets amplify tension, but Karam is stubbornly unwilling to give anything to the viewer. He keeps everything at a distance, and it’s all such subdued material, the kind of thing that might have worked in the quiet of a theater but refuses to meet audiences halfway in a movie.
At one point, Erik says “Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” That’s the theme that tries to hold “The Humans” together—the seemingly increasing cost of day-to-day existence. Karam adds loud pipes and cracks in the ceiling to increase the sense that something is just wrong. Everywhere. I just kept hoping that the ominous sense of drama led somewhere more interesting than an acting exercise that I wished I had seen on a stage.