Benediction, 2022. Directed by Terence Davies. Starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones, Simon Russell Beale, and Ben Daniels. SYNOPSIS: The story of English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Sassoon.
By Chris Connor
Terence Davies has left an indelible mark on the landscape of British cinema over the past four decades with numerous acclaimed films including Deep Blue Sea, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. Davies’ films are noted for being semi-biographical and often referencing cinema with a focus on post-war Britain. His latest is Benediction, a biopic of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon chronicling his years in the First World War and his life and social circle post-war with a younger Sassoon played by Jack Lowden and an aging Siegfried played by Peter Capaldi .
One of the challenges facing Benediction is perhaps that there is greater awareness around his war exploits and friendship with the renowned war poet Wilfred Owen. The friendship of the pair is touched upon but perhaps doesn’t play as much of a part as one might expect although it is responsible for some of the film’s most hard hitting moments revolving around Owen’s poem Disabled.
Instead the film cuts back between Sassoon’s somewhat hedonistic lifestyle and the social circles he kept post war including his relationships with Stephen Tennant and Ivor Novello. The latter day Sassoon appears sullen and we see some of his strained relationship with his son George as he comes to terms with his legacy and the loss of those close to him. It appears like Davies has channelled some of his own questions with his sexuality in the film and perhaps feels like Sassoon’s life mirrors his own.
Lowden’s performance shows why he has been renowned for several years following roles in Fighting With My Family, Dunkirk and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. He is able to fully display the difficult nature of Sassoon’s mental state and his many failed relationships which left deep scars, coupled of course with the impact of his time in the War and the loss of his friend Wilfred Owen. The optimism and desire for a happy life of the younger Sassoon is devastatingly undercut by the world-weariness and morose performance of Capaldi whose Siegfried seems devoid of happiness and unable to care for himself, a silent presence scarcely muttering a word. There is strong support from a number of celebrated actors including Simon Russell Beale with the small but crucial role of Robbie Ross who was a crucial ally of Siegfried’s family who made sure he wasn’t punished for his outspokenly anti-war stance.
While the film takes place largely post war, the influence of the war on Siegfried’s life is tangible throughout, further highlighted by archive footage interspersed by Davies which shows the horrors encountered by many and the clear lasting effect had on many not just Sassoon. The film’s final moments are incredibly moving and build to a devastating crescendo as he comes to grip with a life marred by sadness and darkness.
Benediction is a moving and at times devastating portrait of an artist of renown grappling with his own mortality, sexuality and sense of purpose. It acts as a glimpse behind one of Britain’s most renowned poets whose private life might not be familiar to many and does a fine job capturing the hedonistic lifestyle of Britain’s post-war literature circles. The performances from the leads, particularly Jack Lowden help to give this a real sense of tragedy and captivate the audience. The film fully captures the spirit of the era with a sense of the collective sadness felt by the nation after the First World War and desire for the youth to enjoy themselves. If it is a tad too long, Benediction certainly carries on Davie’s exquisite filmography showing him once more as a master of his craft and one of Britain’s finest and most important working directors.