Producer: Michael Elliott Director: Terence Davies Screenplay: Terence Davies Cast: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Anton Lesser, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels, Suzanne Bertish, Matthew Tennyson, Julian Sands, Lia Williams, Richard Goulding, Jude Akuwudike and Giovanna Ria Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Terence Davies is one of the most poetic of filmmakers, so perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, now in his seventies, he has turned his attention to biographical films about eminent poets with whom he feels an affinity, first with “A Quiet Passion” (2016) about Emily Dickinson, and now with this treatment of Siegfried Sassoon. “Benediction” tries to be both a recognition of Sassoon’s talent and a piercing portrait of his life as a closeted gay man in early twentieth-century England—when homosexuality was a crime. It doesn’t fully satisfy on either count, but carries sufficient emotional power in both to warrant your attention, especially since it’s suffused with Davies’ striking, if rather stilted, style.
The film is bookended by sequences that point to both Sassoon’s status as one of the great British voices on the horrors of World War I and his relationship with another of them, Wilfred Owen. The initial reel, set in 1917, deals with Sassoon (Jack Lowden), already a published poet and a lieutenant temporarily returned from the trenches in France for medical reasons, issuing a public protestation of the conduct of the war. That leads to a threat of court martial which results in his commitment to a military psychiatric facility.
There he meets fellow patient Owen (Matthew Tennyson), an aspiring poet himself. The two develop a bond so close that, at least in this telling, it earns a disgusted reproach from the head of the facility (Julian Sands), though Sassoon’s cultured therapist (Ben Daniels) is far more understanding, admitting that he harbors similar feelings for men. This virtual prologue concludes with Owen’s return to active duty and Sassoon’s voiceover revelation that his friend was killed in combat shortly before an Armistice brought an end to the fighting.
The shadow of Owen returns at the film’s end, when the elder Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) sits disconsolate on a bench in fifties London, remembering when, back in 1917, he’d read the younger man’s masterful new poem, “Disabled,” a portrait of a man destroyed by the war. Davies plays out the memory as a tableau of the soldier sitting alone in a wheelchair, juxtaposing it with shots of Sassoon, changing from Capaldi to Lowden and back again, on the bench.
Between these opening and closing chapters Davies shifts back and forth between two interrelated themes. One is how Sassoon was haunted by the war; this is presented impressionistically, with black-and-white photos and footage from the western front accompanied by swells of somber music, much of it by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and recitations from the war poetry of the period, not only by Sassoon and Owen but others as well. When we reach the final tableau, it’s evident that the images of the wheelchair-bound soldier and the seated Sassoon are meant to suggest that the lives of both were devastated by the conflict. The combination of literary, pictorial and musical elements has a powerful effect, though the impact is not so much emotionally harrowing as intellectually telling.
The second, larger portion of this middle section of “Benediction” treats of Sassoon’s relationships with other members of the British upper class, with some of whom he had gay affairs, though the implicit suggestion is that none equaled his first, painfully unfulfilled love for Owen. A substantial early influence is the ebullient wit Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), a noted defender of Oscar Wilde during his legal trouble, but note is also made of his interactions with poet Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams) and artists Theresa Thornycroft (Geraldine James) and Ottoline Morrell (Suzanne Bertish).
But the major emphasis is on his succession of affairs, beginning with actor-musician Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), followed by Novello’s onetime lover, actor Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth) and, disastrously, with ostentatiously decadent socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), whose abrupt breakup with him leads to Sassoon’s decision to emulate Shaw and marry. His union with Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips) is only briefly touched on, but it does bring him a son named George, who appears in the film’s latter stages—when Sassoon and Hetty (played now by Gemma Jones) separate—played by Richard Goulding.
In these final scenes George is angered not only by his distant, acerbic father’s treatment of Hetty, but also by his decision to convert to Roman Catholicism, which had also been referenced at the film’s beginning. Davies shies away from belaboring the import of Sassoon’s conversion, preferring to let the viewer read whatever he prefers into it. It’s clear, though, from Sassoon’s brutal rejection of an attempted reconciliation by the aged Tennant (Anton Lesser), that forgiveness has not become part of his character.
The tone of these biographical scenes is curious, varying between comedy of the Evelyn Waugh “Vile Bodies” sort as the characters trade barbs and snide verbal brickbats, and high-pitched melodramatic confrontations that smack more of a Warner Brothers weepie from the 1940s. It’s a difficult balancing act, and Davies’ touch is sometimes uneasy performing it.
But if the film can come off as affected, it offers substantial compensations—sophisticated dialogue, compelling performances by Lowden and Capaldi, a supporting cast that revels in the showiness of the material, and the exquisite surface that’s typical of Davies’ work, courtesy of production designer Andy Harris, costumer Annie Symons, cinematographer Nicola Daley and editor Alex Mackie. The visuals are luminous and painterly.
As with his Dickinson film, Davies’ approach here can feel more cerebral than impassioned. But “Benediction” brings a voluptuousness of language and image to its treatment of the talented but tormented poet that is hard to resist.