Terence Davies’s plaintive biopic, about decorated soldier Siegfried Sassoon, explores the turbulent life of the anti-war activist and acclaimed poet in meticulous detail. Defying the genre trope of honing in on one period of the subject’s life, Benediction depicts the trauma of the First World War as a generational psychological phenomenon, as Davies’s script flits – sometimes jarringly – between Jack Lowden’s ardently emotional wartime Sassoon, and an embittered older Sassoon, played by a snarling Peter Capaldi.
Cinematographer Nicola Daley’s superimpositions and use of archive footage of tanks, shelling and fallen soldiers lying in frontline trenches, combined with Lowden’s measured recitals of war poetry, generate an emotionally attuned viewing experience that borders on excruciating. Lowden’s Sassoon struggles to reconcile his objection to senseless losses on the frontline with his written protest being brushed under the carpet by friends in high places, thereby avoiding public declaration and a court-martial. Sassoon lands instead in a military hospital with a diagnosis of trench fever, and it is here that Benediction’s palpable queer energy makes its entrance: first through the fraternity that blossoms between Sassoon and young budding poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson, doomed to die on the frontline a week before the war’s end), and which continues in Sassoon’s dalliances with a number of socially prolific gentlemen.
Sassoon’s post-war love interests include the facetious socialite Ivor Novello (an acerbic and kohl-eyed Jeremy Irvine), with whom he engages in a sensual but ultimately toxic love affair. Anguish and longing are constant themes as Sassoon wanders through his life, utterly disillusioned and drawn to lovers whose affections can never be fully realised, “one of the inconveniences of the shadow life we lead,” becoming a particularly poignant observation of their closeted existence, delivered by Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth). Eventually retreating into a heterosexual marriage with the forbearing Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips) and bearing a son, George, Capaldi’s opaque elder Sassoon encapsulates the poet’s bleak disenchantment with his place in the modern world, lamenting his lack of social standing in bouts of fractious dialogue which make feeling sympathy for him no easy task.
Benediction’s final scene is one of its strongest. Playing out beneath a moving recital of Owen’s poem Disabled, Lowden delivers a searing emotional crescendo: on-screen, he is silent and overwrought as he observes an amputee war veteran from a park bench. But his impassioned narration demands: “How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come / And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?”
Although at times meandering, and with dialogue occasionally bordering on the verbose, the film brings the existential toll of war to vivid life in a fitting ode to Sassoon and his generation – a generation left striving for “peace of mind, contentment, to no longer search for what’s lost” in the wake of unfathomable violence and tragedy. Arresting, emotive and magnificent, Benediction is an unassuming triumph.
Benediction is released nationwide on 20th May 2022.
Watch the trailer for Benediction here: