Director Terence Davies’ eighth feature in 35 years looks at the life of the British World War 1 poet Siegfried Sassoon, played magnificently by Jack Lowden. Years in the works and further delayed in 2020 due to Covid, Benediction is being lauded as Davies finest film. It may well be.
Davies 1988 debut ‘Distant Voices Still Lives’ was cited in 2002 by the BFI’s ‘Sight & Sound Magazine’ as ‘one of the best 9 films of all time’. Hugely personalised with a stillness of style, it was likened to BBC TV’s 1970’s ‘Kitchen Sink’ dramas made for and by producer Tony Garnett in his ‘Play For Today’ series. Perhaps inappropriately so?
Benediction is a period costume drama. Shot in sumptuous locations. Much of the film takes place inside the insular world of the post war ‘Bloomsbury set’. London’s ‘Flapper’ gatherings perfectly illustrate composer Ivor Novello’s 1920’s heyday. During this time Sassoon had a brief, but life-changing affair with the acerbic celebrity. Famed for being a duplicitous and polygamous cad, the young Novello is admirably portrayed by Jeremy Irvine. In riposte to Sassoon’s possessiveness, Novello says, “If you want fidelity, buy a pet!” Sassoon’s biographer, John Stuart Roberts, stated, “Novello was a consummate flirt who collected lovers as he gathered lilacs”. Sassoon’s mother (Geraldine James) candidly alludes to the harshness of his eyes prior to their driving on to Chelsea’s Carlisle Square for a poetry recital by Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams). Sitwell was amusingly nicknamed “Shitwell’ by T S Eliot’s wife Vivien West. A self-regarding snob, her grandiose readings serve as a counterpoint to Sassoon’s modesty and exemplary poetry.
Back to the beginning …
Benediction begins in the wake of Sassoon’s aborted Court Marshall, brought about due to his critiques on the futility of ‘The Great War’. This leads to a tribunal in front of three army officers. One tells the recalcitrant Sassoon, “Your duty is to obey orders’. To which he replies, “In the face of such slaughter one cannot simply order one’s conscience”. Deemed to be suffering from ‘battle fatigue’ or ‘some kind of breakdown’, he is ordered to spend time in Edinburgh’s mental health sanatorium Craig Lockhart House. Here he strikes up a friendship with fellow WW1 poet Wilfred Owen. Later, Owen is sent back to France where he is killed on November 4th 1918 in the final week of war.
Sassoon’s memory of tossing his army service medal into stormy clouds is shot in dreamlike slow motion. This mixes into black-and-white documentary archive, showing a river-like swirl of galloping cattle that mixes into a sequence of troops pouring over the trenches. This is all accompanied by the Country & Western anthem ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’. Davies’ magnificent sleight-of-hand here is used to tremendous effect. Later further revealed in his Poem, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘what passing bells for those who die as cattle’.
With much of the film shot in still framed conversations, many important scenes are offset by a choreographed cinematography-of-purpose, revealing both transitions in time and reflections upon regret. Not least an arcing camera shot of Sassoon sitting on a Cathedral pew. Here Davies time slips the younger Sassoon into Peter Capaldi, his grumpy older self. The penultimate scene shows Capaldi peering through a closed window. He is framed screen left. Screen right key figures from his past dissolve in-and-out of focus through lead-glass windows, like ghosts from his troubled past. Without causing a plot spoiler, the film’s final sequence artfully combines Sassoon’s recited poetry with Vaughn William’s ‘Thomas Tallis’ in a profoundly brave and moving conclusion.
Award winning? Benediction certainly deserves to be. It is currently on cinema release and available on BFI Player.