Critics Pick

‘Benediction’ Review: Terence Davies Finds Room for Himself in a Heartbreaking Siegfried Sassoon Biopic

Not every temporal shift lands in this ambitiously conceived study of the gay British poet, but at its best it's sublime, with a tremendous star turn by Jack Lowden.

Benediction - Variety Film Review - Critic's Pick
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In multiple interviews over the years, British filmmaker Terence Davies has baldly stated that being gay has ruined his life: “I hate it, I’ll go to my grave hating it … it has killed part of my soul,” he said in 2011, adding that his sexuality is the reason he remains single and celibate. Davies’ professed loneliness and sensitivity has bled through many of his films, wistfully entrenched as they often are in an unattainable past, most recently in a series of female-centered character studies: his swooningly melodramatic, cut-glass adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s “The Deep Blue Sea,” his amber-cast farm drama “Sunset Song” and his mannered, internalized Emily Dickinson portrait “A Quiet Passion.” Yet Davies has never directly addressed homosexuality in his oeuvre, for all its queer undercurrents; that it’s so openly and sensually a part of his intricate, intensely felt new film “Benediction” is the first of its many surprises.

For his second consecutive biopic of a major poet, Davies has selected a pointed subject through which to probe his own complex relationship to sex, faith and art. A decorated British soldier in the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon achieved renown as a poet via impassioned anti-war verses that landed him in a military psychiatric hospital; later, he emerged from the closet to live with unusual openness as a gay man amid the Bright Young Things of 1920s London, before retreating into heterosexual marriage and fatherhood, and converting late in life to Catholicism.

“Benediction” spans all these conflicting stages of Sassoon’s life, not as an arc but as a restless dialogue between stages of youth and old age, trying in vain to pin down the period at which a man is most himself. The result is breathtakingly vast and flawed, moving in all senses of the word. For a film still characterized by Davies’ stately formalism, “Benediction” feels constantly in anguished, searching motion. Not everything works, least of all in the blunt transitions between Sassoon’s younger years, embodied by a tenderly pained, deep-feeling Jack Lowden, and his dried-out dotage, where Peter Capaldi plays him with an embittered, permanently set snarl. But this is the rare biopic that makes a virtue of trying to view a life in full, as opposed to zeroing in on a single telling moment in time: Over its roomy, expansive running time, “Benediction” rather devastatingly shows how we become strangers to ourselves as the years march by.

The film begins, a little stiffly, in London at the outset of the not-so-Great War: Lowden’s voiceover drolly alludes to blinkered English idealism (“God was in his heaven and there were sausages for breakfast”), though from the beginning, his performance suggests Sassoon’s guarded skepticism of the world around him. His time in battle — evoked only through recurring archival montage, set either to ironic popular music selections or Lowden’s whole-hearted readings of Sassoon’s poems and letters — does little to remedy that. When, after sending his “Soldier’s Declaration” of protest against service to his commanding officers, he is sent to an Edinburgh military sanatorium, he explains to his compassionate therapist Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels) that he seeks only “peace of mind, contentment, to no longer search for what’s lost.” It’ll be a lifelong quest, and an unresolved one at that.

It’s while hospitalized, however, that Sassoon’s sexuality comes to the fore, discreetly perceived and coaxed out by the gay, closeted Rivers and given expression in his intimate friendship with the young, doomed anti-war poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson): A rippling overhead shot of their two bodies brushing each other in a swimming pool is among the loveliest single images conjured here by Davies and cinematographer Nicola Daley, and our first indication that “Benediction” is about to enter unexpectedly frank, tactile queer territory.

Sassoon’s subsequent relationships and dalliances with men of social distinction never match the purity of this first love. An extended romance with entertainer Ivor Novello (an inventively cast, kohl-eyed Jeremy Irvine, dishing out caustic bon mots with an elegant, exhausted shrug) awakens his most carnal impulses but turns toxic; fulfillment continues to elude him in flings with the narcissistic socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and gentle, retiring actor Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth). In depicting this queer fraternity, briefly luminous in British high society, Davies’ writing sharply resorts to the same arch, brittle wit that he favored, to more stilted and inauthentic effect, in “A Quiet Passion.” Here, one senses the filmmaker articulating his own sense of alienation from a brotherhood he’s found cruel and unaccepting, as Sassoon himself turns from it, and into the arms of his eventual bride: bright, kind Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, excellent), who’s under no delusions about his true affections.

“You must redeem my life for me,” he implores her. It’s an impossible ask of anyone, and as the film brusquely cuts to scenes of the couple (now played by Capaldi and Gemma Jones) in their joint old age — in reality, the marriage was marked by a significant age gap and ended far sooner — there’s scarcely any life left for redemption. There’s minimal connective tissue in the script between Lowden’s febrile, emotionally overwhelmed Sassoon and Capaldi’s stultified husk of him, seething at everyone from Hester to their long-suffering son George (Richard Goulding) to the Catholic iteration of God he has fruitlessly embraced. (Davies, famously a lapsed Catholic, can’t resist throwing in a few choice one-liners at the religion’s expense: “You can get permanence from dressage without the guilt,” chides George.)

If the cross-cutting between these two Sassoons never fully convinces, it’s because Davies’ script rather stacks the deck against the film’s elder version, whose world is so much less richly drawn and detailed, and even less caringly lit. (While Davies’ recent embrace of digital lensing often yields meticulously textured, sculpturally shadowed rewards here, it can as easily turn to bland harshness.) But if one feels in the filmmaking a fury against aging that may not entirely be Sassoon’s own, “Benediction” is largely ravishing when it sides with Lowden, whose physically fervid, vocally commanding performance reaches silent apotheosis — his face gradually folded, distorted, transformed by unleashed grief for himself and others — during the film’s quite staggering symphonic climax.

There’s an accompanying, exquisitely delivered poem for this sequence, though crucially, it’s not one of Sassoon’s. Brilliantly filling the negative space of an earlier scene in which it is silently read but not heard, Davies finds all he wants to say in the lines of “Disabled,” Owen’s gorgeous, devastated ode to a ruined veteran: “How late it is! Why don’t they come/And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?” The terror and poetry of aloneness — not just in the world, but in oneself — courses through this thorny, ornery, wonderful film, in which Davies at once holds a magnifying glass to a fellow artist, and a mirror to himself.

‘Benediction’ Review: Terence Davies Finds Room for Himself in a Heartbreaking Siegfried Sassoon Biopic

Reviewed at San Sebastian Film Festival (Competition), Sept. 18, 2021. (Also in Toronto Film Festival.) Running time: 137 MIN.

  • Production: (U.K.) A British Film Institute, BBC Films, Creative England presentation of an EMU Films production. (World sales: Bankside Films, London.) Producer: Michel Elliott. Executive producers: Paul Ashton, Margarethe Baillou, Norman Merry, Lizzie Francke, Rose Garnett, Jim Mooney, John Taylor, Walli Ullah, Jack Lowden, Peter Hampden. Co-producer: Deborah Aston.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Terence Davies: Camera: Nicola Daley. Editor: Alex Mackie.
  • With: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Simon Russell Beale, Matthew Tennyson, Kate Phillips, Ben Daniels, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Julian Sands, Suzanne Bertish, Lia Williams.