- Colin Fraser
FOUR AND A HALF STARS Removed from the military for his pacifist views, acclaimed poet and decorated soldier Siegfried Sassoon finds himself adrift in London society. PERIOD DRAMA UK English Language #BENEDICTION
Starring Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw summarised this film perfectly with one word: sadness. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely filmmaker Terence Davies’ intent, to crate a cinematic treatise on the subject of sadness, but it is everything that underpins every moment of his rather brilliant film.
Siegfried Sassoon was, you may remember from English lessons long past, a celebrated ‘war poet’ of the early 20th century. A contemporary of and inspiration for similarly statured poet Wilfred Owen, the pair became spokesmen against the unparalleled horror of The Great War while holding the jingoism of self-serving patriotism to the fire. Unlike Owen who was cut down in his prime on the battlefield (and therefore became a literary hero), Sassoon lived a long and rather unillustrious life, never reclaiming the power or authority of his verse in youth. Survivor’s guilt was one of many personal battles he faced until the day he died.
Rather than follow a familiar path of the biopic, Davies chose a mix of options: one part documentary, one part arthouse, one part corset drama, one part melodrama. The effect is compelling when it’s not exhilarating - albeit an exhilaration lined with sadness, the kind that sat like an inescapable shroud over Sassoon’s life. Having been rewarded for exceptional valour on the battlefield (‘suicidal bravery’ some said), the death of a close friend led, in part, to his vivid anti-war poetry that drew, inevitably, the ire of his superiors. This was a world with no patience for pacifists nor those whose love dare not speak their name and thus Sassoon was ushered out of the military. He turned to London society for comfort and while highly regarded for his early work, the poet never again found acclaim in his field. More frustration, more self-loathing, more despair.
Davies is not beholding to convention nor timelines as the narrative jumps from Sassoon the younger (a robust performance by Jack Lowden) before digitally morphing into Sassoon the elder (Peter Capaldi in the most dour performance of his career). There’s archival footage from the battlefield with Lowden watching on, scenes in which he’s swallowed whole by the gravity of a world on fire. There’s a middle section which feels like an unwritten sequel to BRIDESHEAD REVISITED in which Sassoon works hard to maintain the flighty focus of his latest affair, celebrated composer Ivor Novello. His 'friends' are a sour, disagreeable bunch and it’s credit to Davies that he can hold our sympathies through this car crash of emotions. And again, the sadness, the grief, the longing and despair that saturates Sassoon’s life. By the time he decides to have a child and begin an ill-fated marriage, he’s chest deep in the tears of his own sorrow.
Granted BENEDICTION isn’t your typical date-night film. In fact, it’s not your typical anything film and therein its strength. You’ll need some courage yourself to get through to the end and at 137 measured, qualified and slowly delivered minutes, the end doesn’t come quickly. Yet, strangely, nor do you want it to. There’s a sublime beauty to Davie’s film, his production is sumptuous and it wraps this painful cry for help, this benediction, in a way only the hardest heart would reject.