Six years after taking a contemplative approach to the life of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies undertakes a thoughtful study of another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, in Benediction. The English writer emerges here as an introspective figure — a decorated World War I soldier haunted by the deaths he witnessed on the Western Front and a gay man disillusioned by his relationships with jaded narcissists. This biographical drama, grounded in the anguished poetry of its protagonist, is hushed and decorous to a fault. But it does eventually wind its way to a profoundly affecting conclusion.
That ending, which for many will invite comparison to Call Me by Your Name, is like a release valve for Jack Lowden’s muted but achingly sensitive performance as the young Sassoon. Raw feeling suddenly floods from him with a force that recalibrates our understanding of his love for Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who entered his life only fleetingly, and whose legacy as a First World War poet would equal or arguably eclipse Sassoon’s. Davies’ use in that concluding scene of a stunning piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a British symphonist from the same period, retroactively elevates the film with an emotional vitality that’s otherwise often missing.
Poetry in slow motion.
The life that courses through the writer-director’s best films has been dimmed in his more recent work. I’m no doubt in the minority here given that Davies has retained a reverent critical following, but while he continues to be an impeccable craftsman, his last film to really floor me was the underappreciated 2011 adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea.
Perhaps that’s partly because Davies set the bar so high for himself with the unique films that put him on the map starting in the late ’80s — two exquisitely personal family dramas set in his native Liverpool, Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes; the wonderful documentary about his hometown, Of Time and the City; and one of the finest film adaptations of Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth. But his films lately have become more cerebral and stilted. That’s the case with Benediction, which will make it an acquired taste, particularly outside the U.K.
Queer subtext has rippled through the openly gay Davies’ filmography, but his look at Sassoon’s melancholic series of relationships after the war makes this his first explicit exploration of love between men.
Chief among Sassoon’s partners portrayed here are London theater luminary Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), described by Siegfried’s mother (Geraldine James) as “amusing but unpleasant,” with cruel eyes; and bright young thing Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). Both of them pack more than enough acid-dipped snark to send Siegfried, if not back into the closet, then into the retreat of a passionless heterosexual marriage, like many gay men of the era. “You must redeem my life for me,” he tells future wife Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), making no secret of his sexuality.
A whirl of famous names moves through his orbit — Ottoline Morrell (Suzanne Bertish) and Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams) make brief, highly theatrical appearances — but it’s the experiences of the Great War that linger with Sassoon. And his choice to capitulate to the safety of marriage, transitioning into “the shadow life,” steers him toward an old age poisoned by sorrow and regret. (Peter Capaldi steps into those scenes as Sassoon, with Gemma Jones as the older Hester.)
Davies opens with Siegfried and his younger brother Hamo (Thom Ashley) attending a 1914 performance of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes dancing Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” a last gasp of beauty before the siblings ship off to war. Only one would return. The director takes a lyrical collage approach, interweaving grainy black-and-white archival footage of soldiers in battle with Sassoon’s poems read in voiceover by Lowden. These are not poems of heroism and valor but of desolation, trench fever rendered as abject horror.
Withdrawing from service, Siegfried sends a “Soldier’s Declaration” to his commanding officer in 1917, a broadside against the British government’s continuation of the war and of the senseless sacrifice of human lives. His friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), a former lover of Oscar Wilde’s, uses his influence to intervene, against Siegfried’s wishes, and spare him from court-martial. Instead he’s brought before a committee and advised to “ignore his conscience,” but he refuses to be silenced. In order to neutralize his protest, Sassoon is deemed unfit for service and sent to a military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh.
This section contains some of the more illuminating scenes. Siegfried receives a frosty welcome from Julian Sands’ sneering chief medical officer, but counseling sessions with Ben Daniels’ Dr. Rivers provide “a cleansing of the soul.” Siegfried hesitantly opens up about the “inner corruption” that shames him, but finds he can talk more freely once Dr. Rivers reveals that he hides the same secret, albeit with less torment.
Siegfried also meets and mentors the younger writer Wilfred Owen while at the hospital, their bond sketched in a playful tango scene and, more poetically, a shot of their bodies drifting together in the facility’s swimming pool in the rain. They barely touch, but this is by far the most sensual image in Benediction. And it’s Owen’s poem “Disabled” that pushes Siegfried to the shattering catharsis of the film’s final scene.
Davies’ customary mix of conventional dramatic scenes with stylized interludes and posed tableaux works well enough. But the fluidity often falters in the crosscutting between the young Siegfried, an ineffably gentle gentleman in Lowden’s performance, and his embittered older self, all kindness erased over the years. Capaldi effectively plays this transformation into a cold, hardened man, brittle in his exchanges with both Hester and their son, George (Richard Goulding). The latter disapproves of his father’s decision to convert to Catholicism in his search for “something permanent, unchanging.”
All this remains absorbing, though it seldom acquires the charge of the more impressionistic scenes, powered by Lowden’s expressive readings of Sassoon’s poems. This is an elegant but staid drama, with its stately camerawork and characters often talking in stiff aphorisms. Perhaps it’s inevitably depressive given the degree to which the subject is defined by denial and self-doubt, questioning his artistic worth as much as his sexuality.
Someone always seems to end up looking out a window through the rain in Davies’ films — in this case, Capaldi’s older Siegfried, remembering the people who have touched his life in meaningful ways, with Owen seen last and longest. “And yet, life goes slowly on,” he says at one point in an excerpt from his writing. That simple, sad sentence could almost be a mission statement for Davies’ entire body of work, with its unhurried rhythms and its sense of endurance, carrying the burdens of the past. But it’s an especially apt summation of Benediction, which depicts a quest for personal salvation that remains unfulfilled.