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Arts & Culture Film, Theatre & TV

Critically Acclaimed in 2022

  • November 21, 2022
  • 5 min read
Critically Acclaimed in 2022

Two Overlooked British War Films

Benediction

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 – possibly inappropriately?

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 of the story …

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 Williams ‘Thomas Tallis’ in a profoundly brave and moving conclusion.  

Award winning? Benediction certainly deserves to be. It is newly out on Blu-ray and is streaming on BFI Player. 

 Eric Ravilious – Drawn To War

This documentary feature’s opening montage shows point-of-view footage of a propeller driven aircraft, spiraling-out-of-control as it crashes into the North Sea. Air bubbles from an unseen drowning crew mingle with dozens of paintbrushes as they float upwards in slow motion. The very moment of the death of the World War 2 Airman and British War Artist, Eric Ravilious, on September 2nd 1942, which serves to bookend this insightful film.

Amid half a century’s worth of British Arts documentaries that I’ve watched (and personally worked on) Drawn To War stands head and shoulders above the rest. 68-year-old veteran director Margy Kinmonth’s biopic on the Watercolor Painter is the finest film on any British artist I’ve seen to date. It’s simply breathtaking. Born of beauty and hope, yet rooted in sadness and personal tragedy.

With full access to the family archives this tale unfurls neatly, utilising as a ‘voice-over’ the correspondence from Eric’s late wife and fellow artist Tirzah aka ‘Tush’ (Tamsin Greig) and Ravilious (Freddie Fox). We feel as if they are in the room with us, living-out their private conversations for us all to earwig upon. Add to this, key interviews with family members, insights from academics, plus admirers in the shape of artist Grayson Perry and playwright Alan Bennett.

The question one might ask is, “Is this Arts Documentary just typical TV fodder now on the big screen? No! It’s quite the opposite. Featured art historians comment and shed light upon the couple’s personal life via their read-out letters. These thread-in throughout the whole story, weaving-in tear inducing revelations. Edmund Joliffe’s score underpins this technique, while stunning golden hour cinematography captures and contextualizes the shimmering haze and iridescent light in Ravilious’s watercolors.

On a personal footnote, my father, the Scottish Watercolorist R Scott Irvine RSW SSA DA (1906-1991) exhibited with Ravilious during the early 1940’s at a juncture when they both painted the first ‘shot down ME 109 German Fighter Plane of WW2’, near RAF Duxford, now on display at The Imperial War Museum, London; alongside Ravilious’s best ‘War Paintings’.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBHPszoi2so&t=18s

Drawn To War is out on Blu-ray and streaming online too.

About Author

Henry Scott Irvine

The published author of Procol Harum's hardback Omnibus Press biography, Henry Scott-Irvine's writing began in the script departments of the British film industry. He continued as a Film & TV 'Music & Arts' researcher. He has a long background in published journalism. A radio producer-presenter since 2009 as well as a producer of the award winning documentary film Tales From Tin Pan Alley. He's a successful campaigner for securing listings and preservation for London's music & film heritage sites.

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