Terence Davies’ Benediction, his epic depiction of the life of First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, takes on a new and unexpected relevance at the moment and it’s one neither the director/writer or anybody else involved in its making could ever have envisaged. The grainy black and white footage and photographs of badly injured and dead soldiers, the intense poetry focusing on the horrors of warfare from Sassoon and his contemporary Wilfred Owen and the after effects of conflict on those that survived it ….. all closer to home than we’d like.
The portrait of Sassoon’s life starts while World War I is in its early months. He’s started writing his anti-war poetry but, much to his anger, his family’s wealth and connections prevent him from getting the platform for his views that a court martial would have provided. Instead, he’s shipped off to a military hospital for those suffering from what’s known as “nervous debility” caused by the war. He’s treated by a sympathetic doctor and also meets his first real love, fellow poet Wilfred Owen. Their relationship encourages their mutual creativity but, when Owen returns to the front and is killed, Sassoon never wholly recovers. Subsequent relationships are all doomed to failure and, as an older man, he is distant from those around him, constantly searching for a comfort he’s destined never to find.
Relentlessly sombre to the point of heavy going, this is a stylised telling of Sassoon’s life story, alternating between the younger man – winning a Military Cross for gallantry, achieving success with his poetry, going through a series of turbulent relationships with young men, most notably Ivor Novello – and his older self, covering up his real emotions with cold silence and sharply barbed criticisms aimed at those who should be closest to him. His search for solace through marriage and, latterly, religion in the form of Catholicism is leading nowhere and that sense of disappointment and failure is all pervasive.
With his talent for keeping everybody except for a chosen few at arm’s length, it’s hard to get involved with Sassoon and, as portrayed by the excellent Jack Lowden, he pours all his empathy into his poetry, leaving little to invest in his personal life. Not that all his affairs crumble because of him – he chooses his partners exceptionally badly, especially the cattily cruel Novello (Jeremy Irvine on waspish form) – but married life with Hester (Kate Phillips and, in her later years, a subdued, heart breaking Gemma Jones) can never ultimately give him the happiness he seeks. It doesn’t help that she knows he’s gay from the outset, but still goes into the marriage with her eyes firmly shut. Peter Capaldi is the older Sassoon, taciturn, bitter and ice cold but, while he gives a strongly committed performance, it’s hard to imagine the younger man as played by Lowden developing into his older version. There’s the sense that, try as he may, he’s miscast and can’t quite grasp the essence of his damaged character. Even seeing Lowden’s face morph on screen into Capaldi’s doesn’t do anything to change that.
Make no mistake, Benediction is hard work, but it does have its rewards. The film’s final and lengthy image of the young Sassoon alternately letting the tears flow and then choking them back, with Vaughn Williams’ stirring Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis as its soundtrack, is one that will lodge itself in your memory for hours afterwards. Davies’ script is articulate and literary, relishing language and taking even more delight in savagely brittle exchanges. It’s difficult, however, to escape the emotional coolness running through it and those indelible final moments only provide a partial thaw.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Vertigo Releasing | BFI Flare on 17 and 18 March. UK cinemas from 13 May. | Dir: Terence Davies. | Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Daniels.