By Theresa Rodewald.
Unconventional and even daring while not appearing to be so.”
“I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” writes poet Siegfried Sassoon in a letter to his commanding officer. The year is 1917 and the First World War rages in Flanders, in Gallipoli, and around the globe.
Not only has Sassoon declined to return to his soldierly duties as a lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, but he has also distributed his letter to the press. Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration has even been read in the House of Commons. The only reason Sasson has not been court-martialled and sentenced to death is that some of his friends have managed to convince the right people that he is suffering from mental illness. So, Siegfried Sassoon is shipped to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh and treated for neurasthenia or “shell shock”, a condition from which he does not actually suffer.
Beyond the Biopic: Poetry and Memory in Benediction
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886 and died in 1967. He is one of the British war poets. He was well-connected in British high society and had love affairs and relationships with men like Ivor Novello, the composer and entertainer, actor Glen Byam Shaw and socialite Stephen Tennant. At age 47 Sassoon married Hester Getty who was twenty years younger than him. They had a son. Towards the end of his life, he converted to Catholicism. How it is possible to depict this life, the complexity of this person, in two hours? Terence Davies tells the life of Siegfried Sassoon through his, and other people’s, poems. The film opens with Sassoon’s A Soldier’s Declaration and closes with Wilfred Owen’s poem Disabled. Davies lets these words speak for themselves; they become a voice-over narration. Quite fittingly so, because Davies is not interested in chronicling Sassoon’s rise to fame or his artistic process. Benediction is not a tale of achievement or a conventional biopic but an attempt to approach Sassoon’s life subjectively, through feeling.
Terence Davies’s films have long been interested in conveying the structure of memory. Films such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are characterized by their loose narrative, associative editing and evocative use of music. Techniques that he also employs in Benediction. Mirroring the way in which memory works, there are no title cards that tell us exactly where and when we are. Casting, however, provides us with a rough timeframe. Jack Lowden plays a younger version of Sassoon – from the 1910s to the 1930s – and Peter Capaldi embodies the poet during the 1960s, in old age. It is as though Lowden and Capaldi play two different characters. Capaldi’s version of Sassoon is embittered, drawn and acerbic. His emotions are hidden behind insurmountable inner walls. Lowden’s Sassoon is more accessible. He can feel joy, fall in love and live his life rather than exist in it.
Still, there are continuities between these two versions of the character. One of them is the trauma of World War I and Sassoon’s devastation over the loss of millions of lives. There is anger to his grief that first fuels Sassoon’s public defiance of military authority. Later, however, it freezes over and becomes destructive. Mixed with disappointment, the older Sassoon’s anger hides behind a veneer of unbridled honesty. Terence Davies continually evokes the war by weaving grainy newsreel footage from the trenches into his film. These images emerge throughout the film, from beginning to end. They quite literally surround Sassoon and act as a powerful reminder that the memories of war never quite leave him.
The film captures the excitement and pleasure of belonging to this rule-defying Bohème as well as the stifling self-centredness of people utterly caught up in themselves.”
Although far from grim, Benediction is steeped in sadness. Terence Davies tells Sassoon’s life as a tragedy. He depicts a man who desperately wants to be saved. Who searches for redemption in marriage, in his newborn son and later in Catholicism. Inevitably, Sassoon is disappointed, he cannot find what he is looking for, nor can he let go of the past. Davies trusts us enough not to have Sassoon explicitly state his disappointment but we feel it anyway. It pervades Capaldi’s bitterness as well as the way in which Lowden moves almost manically towards marriage and fatherhood.
Complicated Relationships: Sexuality, Love and Privilege in Benediction
Class has always played an important role in Davies’s films. Especially in his earlier works, he depicted the rich culture of the British working class while previous filmmakers had focused on hardship and poverty. Benediction is centered around posh people, well-connected artists and wealthy socialites. The film captures the excitement and pleasure of belonging to this rule-defying Bohème as well as the stifling self-centeredness of people utterly caught up in themselves. The film also makes it quite clear that Sassoon and his friends can be relatively open about their sexuality because of their privilege.
Benediction is Davies’s most openly gay film but it also reflects his fractured feelings towards the gay community, a topic he has talked openly about in interviews. There is a tortured, repressed quality to Davies’s imagining of the queer community, that maybe has more to do with his own biography than with Sassoon’s life. That Davies is uncomfortable with certain aspects of gay culture is evident in his portrayal of Sassoon’s romantic/sexual relationships with other men. Composer and entertainer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), as well as actor and socialite Stephen Tennant (Callum Lynch), are little more than self-obsessed narcissists – witty, vapid and cruel. Tennant and Sassoon were in a relationship that lasted six years and yet, we never get to see them love each other. Davies’s screenplay treats Novello and Tennant as “flat characters“ – they are types and not much else. We get no insight into their minds or hearts. Although this film is about Siegfried Sassoon, it would have benefitted from sparing a little love for these people, complicated as they might have been.
Only the relationship between Sassoon and fellow war poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) is imbued with emotional weight and actual tenderness. The two men meet at Craiglockhart and form a bond that Davies imagines as a platonic love affair. Sassoon’s relationship with Owen and his days in Scotland are a glimpse of hope in a film otherwise pervaded by melancholia. Still, their time together is short. Owen returns to the active duty and dies in November 1918, one week before the armistice. Their relationship remained unconsummated, “a pure love”, as Davies has put it. While there are arguably too few films which take a stance for platonic love, Benediction makes the mistake of dismissing its more effeminate gay characters instead of dismissing sex.
It is important to note, however, that the melancholic quality of Benediction is not rooted in Sassoon’s sexuality. Sassoon’s anguish does not stem from his sexuality but the psychological pain of his trauma and, later in life, from living in a world that he does no longer understand. Still, the portrayal of gay men in Benediction is a missed opportunity. The film could have explored what it feels like to be an outsider in a community of outsiders. What it feels like to long for a more conventional lifestyle among people who reject convention – an aspect often overlooked in queer filmmaking. There are hints of this conundrum but the film never addresses it directly.
Despite these minor qualms, Benediction is a film worth seeing. It is unconventional and even daring while not appearing to be so. The film defies the rules of the biopic and the period piece alike, it avoids hero-worship and boring stories of artistic achievement. Terence Davies trusts the power of Sassoon’s poetry to stand for itself. He feels his way toward the life and work of Sassoon and is brave enough not to explain every biographical detail. Although at times uncomfortable with Sassoon’s relationship with other men, Benediction does not hide or downplay his sexuality. The best thing about this fine film, however, is Jack Lowden. He is inherently watchable, emotionally accessible and funny. It is Lowden’s performance that makes the sadness of Benediction bearable.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, December 2021).