Director: Terence Davies
Stars: Jack Lowden, Matthew Tennyson, Tom Blyth
The musings of WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon seem to have inspired a sense of visual poetry in British stalwart Terence Davies, whose stately biopic turns in some gratifying surprises in it’s early sections. Disinclined to present the harrowing warfare of the Somme as anything approaching spectacle, Davies instead inclines toward stock footage with Sassoon’s words intoned over the top by his young counterpart, played here by Jack Lowden.
Going further on one occasion, Davies soundtracks one such sequence with an American Deep-South ditty, while the footage of desperate soldiers scurrying amid barbed wire becomes juxtaposed with herded cattle, as though Benediction were being temporarily subsumed by a Western. Soldiers and cattle comingle. One becoming the other. This act of equation plays as a visual echo of Sassoon’s own concerns for his fellow men, concerns that would cause him a great deal of trouble.
Benediction separates Sassoon’s life into three distinct sections; his wartime poetry and conscientious objection (consigned to convalesce in Edinburgh); his post-war litany of affairs and liaisons with the male stars of high society; and his later life, lost in long-term bitterness following a sham marriage and a perceived lack of recognition for his contribution to the arts.
Davies’ impressionistic verve early doors feels like something subtly radical from one of Britain’s most tastefully reserved directors, and it does feel as though he is emboldened by the poetry that calcifies this first act into something mournful, relevant and fiercely idealistic. It is while Sassoon is convalescing that he meets the young and stammering Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) – another great artist of his generation – and Benediction warms at their union, bringing back memories of David Cronenberg’s similarly-inclined meeting of minds A Dangerous Method.
The extended jaunt into post-war frivolity that follows sees Davies temper that initial fire, however, and Benediction loses some of it’s initial sense of flare. Don’t misunderstand; Davies’ craft is as assured as it ever has been, but the remainder of the film cleaves a lot closer to the biopic rulebook. Relationships are cliff-noted, etc., etc. It’s all performed with upmost class but, like Sassoon’s poetry by all accounts, it misses some of that early frisson.
Things arguably wander further from the path come the third act, in which Peter Capaldi struggles to take the baton from the excellent Lowden, embodying the aging Sassoon in the 1960s. Capaldi and Lowden’s takes on the character don’t seem to tesselate anywhere. It’s as if the un-filmed intervening years have wrought unaccounted damage to the man, and Capaldi’s staunch efforts to suppress his natural Scottish accent don’t help any. Because of this, unfortunately, there’s a sense of quite pointed disconnect surrounding Davies’ closing chapters.
Which is a shame as Benediction has several moments of heart-stopping beauty in it’s clutches. Davies’ dialogue is among the most droll in a noteworthy career, and the cavalcade of young actors take to it with wry aplomb. Lowden seems wholly consumed within his version of Sassoon (though his mannerisms and physicality often bring to mind a more earnest Simon Pegg).
Through the film’s middle chapter the shadow of war never fully dissipates, but different political battles make their way to the fore. Benediction becomes more concerned with the manners and mysteries encountered by gay British men of a certain class in the first half of the 20th century. The codes and signals of tactful discourse, the cattiness behind closed doors, the legion of plutonic wives as societal beards. Jeremy Irvine pouts as Ivor Novello, while Calam Lynch carps wonderfully as narcissistic Stephen Tennent (in the process complimenting Lowden’s Pegg with his own dash of Reece Shearsmith), but Benediction remains Lowden’s film through and through.
Come the end, the tallies of the fallen per country in the so-called Great War are rattled off for our grim edification, and the searing anger of Sassoon’s early years is rekindled, but these numbers now feel loaded with another meaning. It is as though Davies – and Sassoon – are tallying quite another cross-border list of casualties. Those of young men thwarted from living their true lives in the open for fear of persecution or reprisal. Benediction is a paean to the fallen soldier, but it is also a love letter to an entire generation of homosexual men forced to live a chaste, curtailed and often contradictory existence.
A film for brothers in arms in a multitude of senses, and one that’s frequently capable of greatness that might’ve been sustained, were it a little tighter and had Davies’ early maverick flourishes lasted the distance.