Filmmaker Terrence Davies has made a stunning array of sombre, reflective films in his career. Some might remember A Quiet Passion, his 2016 depiction of the times of American poet, Emily Dickinson. There Davies explored the loss and sadness Dickinson encountered in a life where her delicate talent seemed destined for obscurity. In Benediction Davies deals with similar themes through a harsher lens – desolation and despondency, extending these towards the eternal struggle to bring meaning to the chaos of war.
In Benediction Jack Lowden portrays war hero and anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon for much of his life. A young actor reminiscent of Tom Hiddleston and even fellow Scot James McAvoy, he bears the weight of the emotional turmoil Sassoon underwent in World War I, before being awarded the Military Cross for bravery and then denouncing the conflict. It is this transformational experience that effectively scars him for the rest of his life. Davies curates these experiences and their aftermath using a varied mixture of actual World War I footage and cinematic techniques to communicate the spiritual wounding of war most effectively.
Sassoon, of course, used poetry as a means of navigating the horrors left on his psyche. His writings included ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’, read out in the House of Commons in 1917, protesting what he saw as the prolonging of the war for national interests. Sassoon hoped such a message would enable a fuller anti-war conversation, but a well-meaning ally and contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Robbie Ross (sympathetically played by Simon Russell Beale), fears an execution for treason and has him committed to a military psychiatric hospital to be treated for shell shock. Sassoon is enraged, but there he befriends fellow young poet Wilfred Owen, whose ‘Disabled’ is featured to heartbreaking effect in this film. In fact, it is during the representations of this and Sassoon’s poetry that Benediction really soars. I wanted more of that.
In a more conventional story, one might expect a growing movement to arise through Sassoon’s words, leading to a triumphant moment of a declared ceasefire or armistice. This is not to be. In the film’s latter half Sassoon ricochets through a series of relationships with other creative types such as famed songwriter Ivor Novello and socialite Stephen Tennant. This period is a little grating, but intentionally so, as the poet strives to cure terrifying memories of the trenches with superficial triviality or alternatively, committed relationships of depth. Neither dulls the pain to Sassoon’s horror, though the film continues to draw one in with many caustic bon mots that border on very dark humour.
Eventually the film depicts Sassoon embarking on other strategies to find what remains elusive. First he marries Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips). Though the film often moves around the timeline of the poet’s life, the transition here is the most striking. Peter Capaldi of Doctor Who fame plays Sassoon in the latter part of his life for a handful of scenes and the once vibrant Hetty becomes older and seemingly despondent in the hands of seasoned character actor Gemma Jones. A son has not proved the saviour of a sad life either. As a young man, George Sassoon is withering in his assessment of Siegfried’s pragmatic conversion to Catholicism.
For all of this, Benediction remains a subtle film, where a very upper-class restraint is exposed as the very least effective treatment for emotional healing. That it finishes with a sublime and extended fadeout is altogether fitting. A “benediction” is a divine invocation for blessing or help. The film Benediction is also such a thing, a desperate and lingering cry for wholeness amidst some of the very worst that humanity can inflict upon itself.
Benediction, rated M and directed by Terrence Davies is currently showing in cinemas. The official trailer can be viewed on YouTube.
Editor’s note 21/02/2022: Interested in learning more about film, the Arts, and the many intersections with life and faith? Jonathan Sargeant teaches ‘THL256 Theology and the Arts’ in second semester at St Francis College. Contact Sheilagh, the College Registrar, on 07 5514 7403 or via firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.Jump to next article