Benediction

TIFF 2021: Benediction Review

One can only swoon for Benediction. Terence Davies’ serenely poetic portrait of Siegfried Sassoon and the “Bright Young Things” social set of the 1920s is a melancholy exploration of the battlefields of love. This handsome Brit pic interprets the life of the poet who honed his voice while objecting to the senseless bloodshed of the Great War. Sassoon, played by an excellent Jack Lowden (Dunkirk), narrowly escapes a court martial and a bullet upon objecting thanks to the protection of his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), Oscar Wilde’s former beau. Davies crafts a film about the ways in men expressed their love in public and private. Love is a battlefield as unforgiving as the Western front, and Sassoon’s verse weaves between brutal documentary footage of the many boys lost to war. Benediction is an achingly sombre elegy for love lost.

This sting comes quickly when Sassoon enjoys a cruelly brief flirtation with happiness. The price for his silence on the anti-war front is an extended sojourn at a mental health hospital in Scotland. The Brits hope to cure Sassoon of his social conscience, but they instead help him break free of his internalised shame. Sassoon’s progressive light doesn’t fade in Scotland—it burns brighter. There he learns the true meaning of love and the power of embracing what he’s long denied. Make love, not war, as they say.

Words vs. Acts

This portrait of the poet and his various affairs with the hunks of London’s posh social circle marks Davies’ first film about love between men. He brings a deeply empathetic gaze to Sassoon’s mercurial relationship with love and life. However, Benediction is a very sad film that painfully conveys the loneliness of a life spent running from love. Sassoon isn’t temperamental, per se, but for a man who evokes such rich emotions through verse, he struggles to realise them in practice. After his brief but formative affair with poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) in hospital, Sassoon hones his voice. He tries to match, capture, and honour the potential of his lover who was snuffed out by war.

Sassoon later strikes up a volatile relationship with composer Ivor Novello (a moody Jeremy Irvine). His new beau sings of life and earns a living by making the world gay, but Novello has a mercilessly cruel side. Love is a game to Novello, and the bodies of ex-flames pile up like soldiers discarded in the trenches. Davies observes as Sassoon and Novello flirt with something like romance but the relationship seems as empty and joyless as the later scenes depicting Sassoon’s marriage to socialite Hester Gatty.

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Played by Peter Capaldi and Gemma Jones in scenes that depict Sassoon’s later years, the elder poet and his wife epitomize a marriage built not on love, but on a lie. Benediction returns to Capaldi’s elder Sassoon intermittently as he seeks peace for his approaching end of life. He asks for the Church’s forgiveness. But whether his atonement is for his perceived sin or for his misspent heart is a secret he carries alone.

The Bight Young Things

Other Bright Young Things come and go, but nobody stays in Sassoon’s arms for long. His affairs include a rebound with actor Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), Novello’s jilted ex-lover whom Sassoon supplanted, and socialite Stephen Tennant (future Bridgerton heartthrob and scene-stealer Calam Lynch), whose vanity and gaiety make Siegfried quiver. These are men with varying degrees of comfort when it comes to expressing themselves both publicly and privately. The sobriety of Davies’ production—the muted emotions, the repressed joy—reflects the social attitude that taught men like Sassoon to deny their true selves.

The restraint in Lowden’s performance speaks volumes by saying little. The ever-present mask of repressed longing makes Sassoon’s poetry doubly poignant. Lowden recites the poet’s verse throughout Benediction in voiceover as Davies’ intercuts the drama with archival images of war. These words are bittersweet as they evoke the advice that Sassoon gives Owen early in the film. He advises him to speak from the heart. Sassoon’s poetry is open-heart surgery: it can’t lay out emotions and observations more clearly. But the gap between words and acts makes each poem a bittersweet refrain.

A Quiet Passion

The distance that Sassoon keeps from his lovers, and from his own heart, may prove alienating for some audiences. One could easily find Benediction too cold and too punishing for a film about love. However, the repressed desire furthers Davies’ considerations of class, stature, and religious upbringing that inform many of his previous works and arguably guided the lives of lads like Siegfried.

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Davies’ previous work, A Quiet Passion, may have benefitted from a title that advised audiences about its understated grace. Like that unconventional portrait of Emily Dickenson, this take on Siegfried Sassoon is as measured and exact as a well-played verse. A film of quiet passion, indeed.

Benediction premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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