Siegfried who? For American audiences, the life of modernist anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon is the relatively obscure subject matter of gay British auteur Terence Davies’ Benediction, a biographical choice made more challenging by the central character’s elusive desire for meaning. The film is the eighth full-length narrative feature in an uncompromising career spanning three and a half decades, one that gloriously came to prominence in 1988 with the cinematic equivalent of the high Mass, the autobiographically rich Distant Voices, Still Lives, a dreamy diptych about a working-class Catholic family in 1940s and 1950s Liverpool. Except for the equally evocative The Long Day Closes that followed, Davies no longer crafts movies directly from the pages of his memories, but they nevertheless remain personal in some way. So, is there something more to Sassoon’s melancholy pursuit of peace of mind in Benediction? With apologies to Bono, is this esteemed filmmaker, now in his 70s, telling us he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for?
Less adventurous in structure than many in Davies’ oeuvre, Benediction is both expressionistic and vivid in recounting selected particulars of an outwardly fascinating life, though something feels missing in the totality of things. After enthusiastically enlisting to serve in the British Army at the outbreak of World War I, the 30-ish Sassoon (Lowden) quickly proves to be an exemplary soldier, earning the Military Cross for exceptional bravery on the Western Front. But as the War to End All Wars drags on, he becomes increasingly disillusioned by his country’s failure to end the conflict. The horrors of the battlefield haunt him (recollections visually represented through actual black-and-white archival film footage) and he commences to publicly protest its continuation. Rather than court-martial its decorated hero for a conscientious objection many consider treasonous, the government sends him to a psychiatric hospital for treatment of his “nervous debility.” According to the film, there he confesses the shame of his inner passions – that is, his unexplored feelings of homosexual attraction – in therapy sessions conducted by a sympathetic doctor (a nicely modulated Daniels). Having experienced a modicum of popular and critical acclaim for his virulently pacifist poems in the waning days of the war and the years thereafter, Sassoon begins to explore a closeted life in the shadows in a series of unfulfilling affairs with various young men, including the Welsh musical theatre dandy Ivor Novello (an eyelinered Irvine, having a bitchily great time). Eventually, he marries and sires a son in midlife, but never finds the peace of mind he asserts to crave, discontent and lonely near the end of his life (Capaldi, as the older – and much less sympathetic — version of Sassoon).
The Merchant Ivory decorum stifles the movie a bit, though its gay-centric section offers catty dialogue that’s more Mart Crowley than Noël Coward. Davies remains lyrical in his visual sensibilities, and he executes certain scenes, such as a revolving 360-degree shot in which the younger Sassoon morphs into the older one, like a maestro. But some of the greatest blessings offered in Benediction are Lowden’s on- and offscreen recitations of some of Sassoon’s most notable poems, powerful in their sobering observations about the inhumanity and hypocrisy of war. The most memorable of those recitations is the one ending the film, “Disabled,” which was not written by Sassoon but by his platonic first love Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet he met in the war hospital during his convalescence and who was tragically killed in battle a week before the signing of the armistice. The poem may be somewhat dated today in its conceptualism, but still: Listen, and weep.
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