Benediction – Just like Sassoon’s body of work, Davies movie is beautiful, vibrant and sad

8 mins read

BFI London Film Festival presents Benediction, coming soon to cinemas nationwide.

“Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

The General – Siegfried Sassoon

Director Terrance Davies is no stranger to the biopic; neither is he a stranger to complex studies of sexuality, religion, art and internal guilt. Therefore, one could argue that the life of Siegfried Sassoon could not have found a better director for its transition to the screen. Many of Davies’ films reflect the deep complexity of individual experience, the fear of failure, and a need for internal healing. For example, his challenging experiences growing up gay in a Catholic world are beautifully reflected in The Long Day Closes (1992). While his eye for the intricate moments that build a life and memory find an exquisite voice in Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988).

However, in many ways, Benediction sees Davies return to many of the themes held within his early trilogy: Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration (1976-1983). While, at the same time, peppering his movie with the period beauty of the classic British costume drama and sexual complexity of James Ivory’s Maurice.


Sickened by the senseless slaughter of war, Davies opens his film with Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden/Peter Capaldi) disobeying army orders. However, on the court marshal, he is saved by his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale). His sentence of recovery and therapy at a Scottish mental health hospital feeling like a wealth driven cop-out. But on arrival at the hospital, he meets Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a man who shares his disdain for war and love of poetry. Sassoon finds himself in awe of Owen’s delicate yet powerful writing, with a relationship of mutual respect and love quickly developing between both men. However, when Owen is sent back to the front, dying in combat just weeks before the end of the war, Sassoon’s guilt at his survival is cemented.

Sassoon has various love affairs with well-known men following the war but equally never fully accepts his sexuality. Here we meet the vain Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch/Anton Lesser) and the artistically and socially obnoxious Ivor Novello (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irvine). But, despite his deep longing for love, Sassoon ultimately chooses the wrong men. His choice to turn his back on gay life by marrying Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), full of internal struggle and a need for emotional stability. Hester is more than aware of his underlying sexuality as he asks her to redeem his life. However, once again, Sassoon places his internal need for happiness and redemption in the hands of another. And in truth, no person, either male or female, can bring the inner peace he longs for, other than himself.


Davies represents Sassoon’s extraordinary life as a series of memories, encounters and failed relationships held within an impenetrable bubble of guilt. Here his military service, the death of his brother, and his internal struggles with self-identity, faith, and sexuality are all contributing factors to his need for redemption. Sassoon feels like a lost and lonely boy in the hands of Jack Lowden, a fiercely intelligent yet complex and multifaceted figure. One who revelled in his wealth and position, enjoying the freedoms it offered, yet never found the peace he sincerely sought. His final years, spent living in regret as he converted to Catholicism in the hope of finding inner calm. However, this inner calm would remain elusive right up to the end.

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether Benediction is an emotional slog and yet another sombre portrait of a troubled gay artist. But, let me dispel this fear immediately. Davies biopic is full of rich and sharp humour, beautiful cinematography and exquisite performances. And while its final message may be draped in an overwhelming sadness, the film itself is also equally a celebration of life, love and art. Here the sadness inherent in Benediction comes from Sassoon’s inability to overcome a feeling of failure. His anti-war beliefs, clashing with his military service, his poetry his only outlet as he dissected the catastrophic moral collapse of the British war machine. Here Sassoon would never find any internal peace, as a lack of confidence in his artistic merit and countless failures in love dovetailed with overwhelming guilt at his survival.


Davies’ portrait of Sassoon is built upon the irreversible march of time, as his past and present merge. His life, a rich tapestry of events, encounters and decisions. But at the same time, his happiness and contentment at those decisions sit within an inability to forgive or understand his actions. No person, religion or therapist has the power to do this for him; his happiness, ultimately dependant on a missing inner peace. His guilt, wrapped in a feeling of hopelessness and inaction born from a perceived failed moral duty, a love that slipped through his fingers and an unrelenting sense of failure.

Never is Sassoon’s survivors guilt more evident than in the haunting memory of Wilfred Owen that follows him. One wonder’s whether Owen would and could have been the love of Sassoon’s life given different circumstances. And as the film closes with Owen’s compelling poem Disabled, this unrequited love and undefeatable guilt rise to the surface. The final scenes of Benediction echoing its title. But here, the final blessing is also a curse that followed Sassoon throughout his life as he sought redemption and peace. In the end, the journey Davies creates is beautiful, vibrant, complex and emotional, just like Sassoon’s most significant literary works.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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