Benediction Movie Review: Terence Davies, the film’s writer/director, has a distinct imprint on the film, which feels more like a poetic meditation on moods, emotions, and occurrences than conventional plots. It’s as if we’re floating over the material, landing in various locations at the director’s choosing. Having a poet as a subject only adds to the atmosphere; the photos are complemented by Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, performed by the two actors who portray him, Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi.
Davies alternates between Lowden’s history and Capaldi’s present, occasionally visually changing the younger actor into the older. There are also musical performances peppered throughout, as well as military footage from World War I, the conflict that the real-life Sassoon opposed in 1917 after witnessing it firsthand.
The Soldier’s Declaration by Sassoon is read early in the film. His reluctance to return to the front line should have resulted in a court-martial, with his objections read into the trial record by law. Instead, Sassoon is taken against his will to a mental hospital to be treated for his “breakdown” because of his family’s high-ranking friends. Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels) is the poet’s therapist, and he expresses his longing for “the love that dares not utter its name.” Surprisingly, the doctor not only admits to being gay but also to have a predilection for lyrical explanations. “Why do you have to make bad things sound so lovely?” Sassoon inquires about one of Davies’ most moving passages of dialogue.
Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a fellow poet who edits the hospital literary magazine, also meets Sassoon. Owen is shy, has a small stammer, and wants his poems to impress his new companion. Sassoon is initially critical until Owen shows him a piece that is so good that it crushes his heart. The two practice ballroom dancing as part of their treatment, which Davies captures with a sympathetic, sexual gaze. (A scenario at a swimming pool is equally worthy of your attention.) The audience only gets a romantic implication here, however, the sensations are so intense they’re practically physical. The fast, furtive looks and uneasy silences are beautifully conveyed, prompting us to assume that this is not going to end well.
Owen is given permission to return to the front lines, where he is killed in combat. The sequence in which he bids Sassoon farewell is a master class in Davies’ trademark subdued, often wordless emotions. Tennyson and Lowden are outstanding, with the latter asking, “Can you just stay a bit longer,” despite the fact that he knows it’s impossible. The movie will be haunted by this friendship and its outcome; Owen is yet another of the soldiers Sassoon was unable to save in battle, underscoring the major reason he initially refused to return to the front. With his poetry, he will pay tribute to them. Davies’ use of black-and-white newsreel footage to accompany Sassoon’s words exemplifies this.
The elder Sassoon is a resentful guy who screams at his son George (Richard Goulding) and has a strained relationship with his wife Hester Gatty (Gemma Jones). George is taken aback by his non-religious father’s decision to convert to Catholicism. He informs George, “It’s something permanent.” Capaldi doesn’t quite like Lowden, nor does he appear to have his mannerisms, but that would be less of an issue if the film were shown in chronological order. We believe Lowden and the elder actor are the same when Lowden visually changes into the older actor (a trick Davies utilizes for Hester and a few other characters).
What’s more significant, we feel Sassoon has the potential to mature into this hardened, angry guy who is still searching for answers. “Benediction” provides adequate evidence to back this up.
Benediction Movie Review
Sassoon has a number of affairs with men, many of whom are unkind to him. Ivor Novello (a fiery Jeremy Irvine), a musical theatre superstar and star of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 Jack the Ripper film “The Lodger,” is the first. After meeting Novello, Sassoon’s mother informs him, “He’s amusing but disagreeable.” “He has cruel eyes.” Perhaps Hitchcock sensed the same malice in him when he cast him. The film’s one traditional love scene is interrupted by Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), Novello’s former lover and one of Sassoon’s later partners.
Despite watching Novello dismiss Shaw cruelly, Sassoon still cares for him and puts up with some of his mistreatment. It’s as though he believes he is deserving of it.
Another of Sassoon’s lovers, tubercular Stephen Tennant, is played by Calam Lynch, who insults him throughout their relationship. Davies writes some brilliantly catty banter to prepare the audience for the terrible punches he’ll deliver later.
As a result, one’s laughter becomes trapped in one’s throat. When dealing with men who have no intention of being faithful, Sassoon is also a jealous kind. We know Lynch will appear in Capaldi and James’ timeline when he transforms into older actor Anton Lesser. Only Shaw and Hester Gatty’s younger self (Kate Phillips) show any respect for Sassoon.
Gatty appears to be as masochistic as her soon-to-be husband; she is aware of his sexuality (both he and Stephen inform her), yet she nevertheless marries him and bears him a son.
Terence Davies has made extremely intimate, occasionally autobiographical films, including his masterwork “The Long Day Closes.” I’m guessing he connects with Sassoon, a fellow artist who, at least in this film, is an elderly man still trying to figure out if his work ever meant.
A man who is still pondering his life choices. This is one of Davies’ best pictures, as distanced as his previous work but bubbling with emotions that are a little closer to the surface than we would expect from him.
It’s remarkable that he chose the title “Benediction” for this film. A benediction is a Catholic sacrament as well as the final prayer of a religious rite, according to Webster’s Dictionary. The final poem we hear is one Owen composed for Sassoon, which is performed to the haunting visual accompaniment of a wounded soldier. It is a fantastic representation of Sassoon’s art as well as his survivor’s guilt. This is a final grace moment for him, a concluding prayer.
The film is now showing in theatres.