Often poignant but frequently disjointed, Benediction is a scattered portrait of First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, juggling themes of homosexuality, war and religion.
British director and screenwriter Terence Davies has frequently shown his skill at bringing biographical stories to the big screen. His greatest films – Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes – are based on his childhood growing up in Liverpool in the 1950s and 60s, both works rendered in exquisite, delicate detail with a richness that is situates you in the lives and world of the characters. Aside from Davies’ own difficult relationship with his homosexuality and religion, his latest film Benediction largely moves away from his own experiences, instead looking at the complex man Siegfried Sassoon; and yet Benediction still harbours that lived-in richness and human tone that has become so synonymous with Davies’ work. Bringing such a detailed, multifaceted life such as Sassoon’s to screen is no mean feat, and Benediction suffers from a fractured structure that struggles to consistently pique your interest, but its unmistakeable Terence Davies tone still ensures the film remains an absorbing watch for the most part.
The life of Siegfried Sassoon – here played by an entrancing and powerful Jack Lowden (Mary Queen of Scots, Fighting with My Family) – was wildly varied (Davies read three huge biographies in preparation prior to writing the script), indicative of a man with a deeply soulful personality and a great respect and empathy for others. His life was complex: he fought in the First World War and was decorated with the Military Cross before writing a letter to his commanders saying he would no longer perform military duties and, in an instant, becoming a fierce anti-war critic. Post-war, Sassoon became an admired figure within London’s aristocracy and his work as a poet was widely celebrated, and still is to this day. Benediction admirably tries to bring all of the above together, as well as referencing Sassoon’s homosexuality within a country that criminalised such acts between men. The bulk of Davies’ screenplay situates us in Sassoon’s years right after the war, with some scenes taking place in his later life.
The sombre tone of the First World War is striking and hangs heavy over much of Benediction. Black and white stills of men at war and of muddy trenches accompanied by Lowden’s voiceover reading Sassoon’s work are breathtaking and undoubtedly stand out as some of the most impactful moments. Classical music choices and choral symphonies mirror the delightful compositions in Distant Voices, Still Lives and contribute to the vividly rendered world on screen in Benediction. Davies’ impressive ability to bring us powerful and soulful moments of serenity is on show here again, albeit less frequently than in previous works. And as a period piece, Benediction stands out amongst others: Andy Harris’ production design convincingly situates the audience in the tortured, still reeling post-war world of Britain.
Davies’ stylistic choices – often amongst his greatest strengths – are a mixed bag in Benediction. The young to old transitions of Sassoon and other characters are bizarre, the actors’ faces suddenly morphing into their older counterpart. Strange tonal shifts hamper Benediction further: the war footage and scenes of Sassoon in his earlier life are absorbing, but the shifts to the scenes of his later life are jarring on every occasion and detract from the overall experience. These scenes are there to highlight the unwavering torment that Sassoon had in his later years over the war and his homosexuality, giving good reason to their inclusion, but they feel clunky and, most critically, underdeveloped.
As the younger Sassoon, Lowden completely and utterly captivates from his first scene. He gives Sassoon an eloquence and charisma – a sophistication which seeps into the very fabric of Benediction itself – whilst perfectly capturing the poet’s deep internal torment regarding the First World War. Subtle facial movements amidst infrequent bursts of obvious emotion mark Lowden out as a true talent; here is one of the best biopic performances of the year already. Peter Capaldi (In the Loop, Suicide Squad), playing the older Sassoon, is given less to work with but still harbours the same inner turmoil, his silence often as heartbreaking as any words could be.
Benediction will captivate many with its admirable effort to bring such a vivid life as Sassoon’s to screen, and its period details mark it out as a wonderfully full-blooded history lesson. Too many strange editing and stylistic choices hamper it to such an extent that it detracts from the power of its overriding anti-war sentiments. His various relationships with men are not always given a strong enough background or weighting, despite Davies’ obvious attempt at anchoring these as emotional and pivotal experiences for Sassoon. Ultimately, the respect for Sassoon as a person might be clear, but it still feels as if his life – so vivacious, varied and tumultuous – deserves a little bit more.
Benediction had its UK Premiere at the 2022 Glasgow Film Festival on 7 March, 2022.