Starring: Jack Lowdon, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Ben Daniels, Kate Phillips, Julian Sands, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Anton Lesser, Calam Lynch, Lia Williams, Kellie Shirley, Suzanne Bertish, Joanna Bacon, Richard Goulding, Matthew Tennyson
Distributor: Rialto Films
Runtime: 137 mins. Reviewed in Jun 2022
Reviewer: Fr Peter Malone msc
The life and poetry of World War I soldier and critic of the war, Siegfried Sassoon. His poetry is recited throughout. But this is his story, the war, relationships, marriage, his son, the path to Catholicism, his disappointment in life.
This review begins with a suggestion, not usually made, that audiences intending to watch Benediction do some research into the poet, Siegfried Sassoon, to fill in a lot of the background of the film. Ordinarily the advice would be the opposite but this film is a kind of impressionistic portrait of the poet, visual, verbal with his poetry, pieces of narrative, but with flashbacks and flashforwards. The narrative is not the most important part, rather the portrait, the war experience and memories, and the poetry are key.
Older audiences would be more at home in the early part of the 20th century, the experience of World War I, emerging from war into the roaring 20s, especially London society. There are references that audiences, 100 years later, may not be familiar with: Stravinsky and the Rite of Spring, sequences with the poet Edith Sitwell, references to the music of George Gershwin, the composer and performer, Ivor Novello (and a performance of his amusing ditty, ‘and her mother came to…’, dancing to Tea for Two, the military, the cattle run, Ghost Riders in the Sky, the comic song for the troops, ‘my wife won’t let me’, the Charleston, Oscar Wilde and his friend Robbie Ross…).
This is very much a Davies film, written and directed by him. He has been making some excellent films for almost 40 years but they are not to everyone’s taste. Too quiet for some, too precise for others, having a particularly delicate sensibility in presenting characters, their complexities, their struggles.
And, yet, there is some ferocity in this film. Siegfried Sassoon served for more than two years in World War I in the trenches, eventually taking a stance against what he thought was the mismanagement of the war, sent to an institution (fictionalised interestingly in Pat Barker’s novel and the film version, Regeneration). What the director does is to insert a considerable amount of war footage, soldiers, assemblies, parades, the fierce fighting, wounds and the mass dead lying in the mud. These are the images that haunt Sassoon throughout his life and permeate his poetry.
Lowden gives a strong nuanced performance as the young Sassoon, while Peter Capaldi appears as the older Sassoon (flashbacks/flashforwards). There is a strong array of British character actors in support, some of them more visibly older after decades in films, Geraldine James, Ben Daniels, Gemma Jones…
Pervading the film is Terence Davies’ gay sensibility, prominent in a number of his films, especially the autobiographical The Long Day Closes. The era in Benediction is immediate post-Oscar Wilde, Sassoon quoting ‘the love that does not speak its name’ to his doctor (Daniels). And Sassoon’s prominent friend is Robbie Ross (Beale), Oscar Wilde’s friend and Catholic confidant. Sassoon came out, in the secretive way of the period, having a number of affairs, including with Novello (Irvine, and whom Davies obviously dislikes, almost creating a caricature and accusing him of arrogance and pettiness).
Eventually, Sassoon married and had a son. There is a wedding sequence and the support of his gay friends. But, into the future, there is tension with his wife, separation, the devotion of his son, even to his increasingly cranky and crabby father. This is illustrated by a visit from his former lover, Stephen (Lesser), who 30 years later wants to apologise but is ousted from the house.
In a final sequence, in the 1960s, Sassoon nearing 80, is taken by his son to the West End performance of Leslie Bricusse-Anthony Newly’s Stop the World, I Want to Get Off. We see Sassoon walk home, sitting on a park bench, remembering, transforming into his younger self, in uniform, sitting, sad, eventually weeping. (And one wonders whether Davies himself regrets that he did not live in the England of a century ago where he seems more at home.)
At the end of this experience, we might be wondering why the film could be called Benediction – ultimately, Sassoon did not seem to be blessed (although, for Catholic interest, he became a Catholic in his older age, instructed by the translator of the Bible into English, Msgr Ronald Knox). Perhaps it is a benediction to have lived, to have survived, and to be able to remember as well as regret.
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