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“Benediction” bears the distinctive stamp of its writer/director, Terence Davies, a man whose films feel more like poetic meditations on moods, emotions, and events than straightforward narratives. It’s as if we are floating above the material, touching down in different places at the filmmaker’s discretion. Having a poet for a subject only heightens that feeling; the images are supplemented by the verse of Siegfried Sassoon, read by the two actors who play him, Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi. Davies hops between Lowden’s past and Capaldi’s current timeframes, visually morphing the younger actor into the older one on occasion. There are also musical numbers sprinkled throughout, as well as war footage from World War I, the conflict the real life Sassoon objected to in 1917 after spending time on the front line.
Sassoon’s Soldier’s Declaration is read early in the film. His refusal to return to the front should have resulted in his court-martial, where his objections would have been read into the trial record by law. Instead, due to his family’s friends in high places, Sassoon is sent against his will to a mental hospital to cure his “breakdown.” The poet attends therapy sessions with Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels), where he reveals his desire for “the love that dare not speak its name.” Surprisingly, the doctor reveals not only his own homosexuality but a penchant for poetic explanations. “Why must you make bad things sound so beautiful?” Sassoon asks after one of Davies’ most poignant pieces of dialogue.
Sassoon also meets fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who edits the hospital literary magazine. Owen is shy, has a slight stammer and wants to impress his new friend with his poems. Sassoon is at first critical, until Owen presents him with a work that’s so good it breaks his heart. As part of their therapy, the duo practice ballroom dancing, which Davies shoots with a tender, erotic gaze. (A scene in a swimming pool also merits this gaze.) Romantic implication is all the viewer gets here, though the feelings are so palpable they’re almost tactile. The quick, furtive glances and awkward silences are beautifully rendered, leading us to correctly believe this will not end well.
Owen is cleared to return to the front, where he is killed in battle. The scene where he says goodbye to Sassoon is a master class in the understated, often unspoken emotions that are Davies’ specialty. Tennyson and Lowden are fantastic, with the latter pleading “can you please stay a little longer” despite knowing it’s not possible. This relationship and its outcome will haunt the movie; Owen is yet another of the men Sassoon could not save in battle, highlighting the main reason he originally objected to returning to the front. He will honor them with his poetry. Davies’ use of black and white newsreel footage under Sassoon’s words powerfully illustrates this.
The elder Sassoon is a bitter man who yells at his son, George (Richard Goulding) and has a tenuous relationship with his wife Hester Gatty (Gemma Jones). George is stunned that his previously non-religious father has decided to join the Catholic Church. “It’s something permanent,” he tells George. Capaldi doesn’t really look like Lowden, nor does he appear to match his mannerisms, but that would be more relevant if the film were presented in order. When Lowden visually morphs into the older actor (a technique Davies uses for Hester and a few other characters), we take on faith that the two are the same. What’s more important is that we believe that Sassoon could somehow grow into this hardened, angry man who’s still looking for answers. “Benediction” gives us enough information to support this.
Sassoon embarks on numerous affairs with men, many of whom treat him poorly. First, there’s Ivor Novello (a fiery Jeremy Irvine), a musical theater legend and star of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 Jack the Ripper film "The Lodger." “He’s amusing but unpleasant,” Sassoon’s mother tells him after meeting Novello. “His eyes are cruel.” Maybe Hitch saw that same cruelty when he cast him. Novello gets the film’s one standard love scene, which is briefly interrupted by Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), his former lover and one of Sassoon’s later partners. Despite seeing Novello coldly dismiss Shaw, Sassoon still pines for him and accepts some of his abuse. It’s as if he feels he deserves it.
Calam Lynch plays the tubercular Stephen Tennant, another of Sassoon’s lovers who taunts him throughout their relationship. Davies scripts some hilariously catty banter that he uses to set the viewer up for the devastating punches he’ll throw later. As a result, the laughs wind up getting stuck in one’s throat. Sassoon is also a very jealous type, dealing with men who have no intentions of being faithful. When Lynch morphs into older actor Anton Lesser, we know he’ll show up in Capaldi and James’ timeline. Only Shaw and Hester Gatty’s younger incarnation (Kate Phillips) treat Sassoon with any decency. Gatty seems to be as masochistic as her soon to be husband; she’s aware of his sexuality (both he and Stephen fill her in), but she enters into a potentially unhappy marriage anyway and bears him a son.
Including his masterpiece, “The Long Day Closes,” Terence Davies has made deeply personal, sometimes autobiographical films. I suspect he finds some kinship with Sassoon, a fellow artist who, at least in this film, is ultimately an older man still figuring out if his art ever mattered. A man still questioning the choices he made in life. This is one of Davies’ best films, as equally detached as his earlier work yet brimming with emotions that are a little closer to the surface than we expect from him. It’s interesting that he named this film “Benediction.” Webster’s describes a benediction as a Catholic sacrament, but also as the last prayer of a religious service. The last poem we hear is the one Owen wrote for Sassoon, presented over the haunting visual accompaniment of an injured soldier. It serves as a perfect encapsulation of Sassoon’s work and his survivor’s guilt. For him, this is a final moment of grace, a closing prayer.
Now playing in theaters.
Jack Lowden as Siegfried Sassoon
Peter Capaldi as Siegfried Sassoon (Older)
Simon Russell Beale as Robbie Ross
Jeremy Irvine as Ivor Novello
Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant
Tom Blyth as Glen Byam Shaw
Kate Phillips as Hester Gatty
Geraldine James as Theresa Thornycroft