Dan Webster reviews "Benediction"
One of the most intriguing names in English literature belongs to a man who is barely remembered today – barely remembered, at least, by those not steeped in early and mid-20th-century English letters.
The man I’m referring to is Siegfried Sassoon, the son of a Jewish father and Anglo-Catholic mother, the latter of whom, it’s said, gave her son his Teutonic-sounding first name not because of any ethnic connection but merely because she was a fan the German composer Wilhelm Wagner’s operas.
Born into enough wealth so that he didn’t have to do any actual work, Sassoon spent much of his early years lounging about, hunting, playing cricket and writing poetry. What pushed him into adulthood was – as it has been for many generations of men – war.
To be specific, World War I. Both Sassoon and his younger brother, Hamo, enlisted in the British Army. While Hamo died during the ill-fated Gallipoli Campaign, Sassoon was sent to France where he earned both the nickname “Mad Jack” and a Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry.”
It was his service at the Western Front, though, that caused Sassoon to suffer a crisis of conscience. Torn by the horrors that he saw, he refused to return to the line. Rather than court-martial Sassoon, which might have resulted in his being shot, British authorities sent him to a mental hospital in Scotland.
His wartime exploits, too, affected his poetry. Sassoon’s poems took on a darker tone. He tried to capture the reality of the death and destruction he had experienced and offer a view that countered the flag-waving propaganda of those who were ignorant of, or worse indifferent to, what war was really like.
All of this is covered in “Benediction,” a film written and directed by Terence Davies that attempts to capture not only Sassoon’s struggles with his military service and his art but also his sexuality. During a time in England when being gay potentially meant serving a term in prison, Sassoon – and many others – lived their lives in a relative shadowland.
Jack Lowden stars as Sassoon as a young man, Peter Capaldi in later life, and Davies follows him as he navigates his departure from the army, his stay in the Scottish hospital, his affairs with the likes of the popular entertainer Ivor Novello (played by Jeremy Irvine) and the socialite Stephen Tennant (played by Calam Lynch as a young man, Anton Lesser in his later years).
We see, too, his marriage to Hester Gatty (played first by Kate Phillips, then by Gemma Jones), his tempestuous relationship with his son George (played by Richard Goulding) and Sassoon’s late-life conversion to Catholicism.
Among Davies’ eight features films, the first two of which – 1988’s “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and 1992’s “The Long Day Closes” – are autobiographical looks at his experiences growing up in Liverpool, Davies employs a singular cinematic style, one marked both by lush colors and a patiently unfolding narrative. Time and again Davies has applied his style to explorations of the emotional weight of longing and the pain caused by unmet expectations.
All of which makes “Benediction” so recognizably a Davies film. Much of what it covers falls close to the truth, even given the usual changes of time and place, etc., to accommodate dramatic effect. Yet Davies’ perspective on Sassoon’s life – especially his later life – resembles not only his early autobiographical work but also his 2016 film “A Quiet Passion,” which is a study of the life of another poet, the American Emily Dickinson.
For Sassoon in particular, nothing seems to lighten his emotional load, something that Davies visualizes by using actual, graphic photos of war carnage and by having Lowden read long passages of Sassoon’s war poems. Whether his depression is because of his lingering memories of war, because he is denied the love he so desperately desires, because he feels underappreciated as a poet – or a combination of all these, is hard to say.
What can be said is that, buoyed by a strong cast and Davies’ inimitable style, the film “Benediction” is Davies own blessing on the life and art of a long-dead poet whose name, and work, deserve to be remembered.
For Spokane Public Radio, I’m Dan Webster.
Besides being a film critic for Spokane Public Radio, “Movies 101” host Dan Webster writes the Movies & More blog for Spokane7.com.