Siegfried Sassoon biopic Benediction is a downbeat but moving film from Terence Davies
“There is a school of thought that regards musical theatre as a second-rate means of expression”
You wouldn’t be looking to the life of Siegfried Sassoon for an upbeat affair but even so, there’s moments in Terence Davies’ Benediction that are just piercingly, agonisingly sad. Between his experiences in the First World War, an unfulfilled emotional life as happiness eludes him whether sleeping through gay high society or settling for heterosexual marriage, and an artistic career overshadowed by others, Davies’ Sassoon is a bleakly tragic figure.
Portrayed by Jack Lowden and in later life by Peter Capaldi, the film is freighted by the weight of the huge decisions that one has to make in life, and the consequences of those actions (or lack thereof, as the case may be). The near-impossible struggle to stand against the Great War, insulated from censure by his officer class buddies. The challenge of accepting his sexuality when his type is cruel pretty boys. The choice to marry a woman (even if she ages into the marvellous Gemma Jones…).
Thus Benediction is brutal in its scathing assessment of its subject. As it pulls together tableaux of music, poetry and drama with film reel and photography from the war archive, a strange beauty does emerge, particularly where the writings of Wilfred Owen are deployed. Sassoon and Owen had a brief connection – both personal and artistic – and Lowden and Matthew Tennyson evince this beautifully and the late deployment of the poem Disabled is almost too much to bear in its moving power.
A series of stylish cameos pique the interest in a perhaps less profound manner – Ben Daniels, Lia Williams and Simon Russell Beale all stand out. But they provide the lighter moments I needed to be able to push through the darker, more opaque sequences, particularly where Capaldi’s despondent older Sassoon is concerned, questioning whether his art or existence even mattered. One to watch, though not if you’re feeling at all fragile.