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 no stranger to the biopic or complex studies of sexuality, religion, art and internal guilt. Over the years, many of Davies’ films have reflected the complexities of self-identity, belief and belonging through the lens of memory, from the beautiful The Long Day Closes (1992) to the exquisite Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). In exploring the life of Siegfried Sassoon, Benediction finds Davies return to many of the themes found within his early trilogy, Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration (1976-1983), as he unpicks the man and the artist through a lens of memory, regret, love and loss.
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Sickened by the senseless slaughter of a devastating war, Davies opens his film with Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden/Peter Capaldi) disobeying army orders. But despite his rebellion, Sassoon finds himself saved by his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) from a possible court marshall. Instead, Sassoon is 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. However, for Sassoon, this feels like a cop-out driven by his wealth and position until he meets Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a man who shares his disdain for war and love of poetry.
Sassoon is in awe of Owen’s delicate writing, with both men forming a relationship of mutual respect and hidden 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 go on to have various love affairs with well-known men following the war despite never fully accepting his sexuality. Within these romantic entanglements, we meet the vain Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch/Anton Lesser) and the socially obnoxious Ivor Novello (played brilliantly by Jeremy Irvine). However, it’s clear that despite his deep need for love, Sassoon struggles to find inner peace and self-acceptance.
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Sassoon would later turn his back on gay life by marrying Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips). Hester was, of course, more than aware of his underlying sexuality as he asked her to ‘redeem his life‘. However, once again, Sassoon placed his internal need for happiness and redemption in the hands of another, their marriage an uncomfortable and challenging sham.
In Benediction, Davies paints a portrait of Sassoon’s life through a series of memories, encounters and failed relationships, each held in an impenetrable bubble of guilt that surrounded his every move. Here his 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 position while never finding who he wanted to be in the process. However, if you think Benediction is an emotional slog and a sad portrait of a troubled queer artist, think again!
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Davies’ biopic is full of rich and sharp humour and exquisite performances. Here, moments of humour, love, and artistic joy surround Sassoon’s internal feelings of failure and guilt – his poetry his only outlet as he questions the morality, structure, and blind colonialism of the British war machine. Here Davies’ film is built around the irreversible march of time, as Sassoon’s life takes shape through a rich tapestry of events, encounters and decisions. It’s clear from the outset that nobody but perhaps, Rivers ever had the power to help unpick Sassoon’s internal struggle as he battled with his guilt right up to his death.
Never is Sassoon’s survivor’s guilt more evident than in the haunting memory of Wilfred Owen that follows him. Here 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.
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.