Benediction arrives in cinemas nationwide on May 20th.
“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 renowned for exploring complex themes of sexuality, religion and internal doubt, from The Long Day Closes (1992) to the exquisite Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). It, therefore, felt like it was only a matter of time before he would tackle the life of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. Davies opens Benediction with Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden/Peter Capaldi) openly disobeying his army orders and facing a potential court marshall for doing so. But Sassoon is saved by his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) and ordered to undergo a new style of therapy at a remote Scottish mental health hospital under the guidance of the revolutionary anthropologist and psychologist W.H.R Rivers. Sassoon believes this to be a cop-out born from his wealth and position until he meets Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who shares his hatred of War and his love of poetry. Sassoon is in awe of Owen’s delicate writing, and it’s not long before both men form a relationship of mutual respect and love.
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 own survival is cemented. Sassoon would, of course, go on to have various love affairs with well-known men following the War, from Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch/Anton Lesser) to the obnoxious Ivor Novello (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irvine). However, despite his deep need for love, Sassoon struggled to find inner peace or self-acceptance as his sexuality gnawed at him alongside doubts about his talent and a fear of social ostracisation. He would turn his back on any potential gay life or happiness by marrying Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), a woman he would use for his own ends as he asked her to ‘redeem his life‘, knowing he could never offer her the love she deserved.
Davies explores Sassoon’s life through a series of memories, encounters and relationships, each held in an impenetrable bubble of guilt and doubt. Here Sassoon’s military service, the death of his brother, and his internal struggles with self-identity, faith, and sexuality contribute to his inner need for redemption. In the hands of Jack Lowden, Sassoon feels like a lost and lonely boy who revelled in his wealth, art and privilege while never finding the man he truly wanted to be. Capaldi further emphasises these themes as the older Sassoon desperately searches for meaning at the end of a life that never offered a feeling of completion. But Benediction isn’t a dour exploration of self-denial and lost opportunities for happiness. Moments of humour, love, and artistic joy surround Sassoon’s internal feelings of failure and guilt, with his poetry his only emotional outlet as he questioned morality, colonialism and War.
Davies’ film is, in essence, an exploration of the irreversible march of time and the rich tapestry of events, encounters and decisions that either make a person whole or forever incomplete. For Sassoon, his tapestry was permanently damaged by War and his internal struggle with his survivor’s guilt and his sexual orientation. Both of these combined in the death of Wilfred Owen, and one wonder’s whether Owen would and could have been the love of Sassoon’s life, given different circumstances. Benediction is a stunning and complex character study of a man who never allowed himself to live, its beauty held firmly in the hands of Davies’ exquisite direction and Lowden’s stunning performance.
THE LONG DAY CLOSES & THE NEON BIBLE
Benediction is a stunning and complex character study of a man who never allowed himself to live, its beauty held firmly in the hands of Davies’ exquisite direction and Lowden’s stunning performance.