With the Siegfried Sassoon biopic “Benediction,” director Terence Davies set out to imagine something unimaginable.
“The three great First World War poets were Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Sassoon. The other two were killed. He survived,” Davies said at the Variety Lounge at BFI London Film Festival. “The very fact that he actually survived is extraordinary. When you think of the casualty lists, they were just terrifying. The First World War made him this great poet — what do you do with the rest of your life? How do you come to terms with that experience, which is appalling? None of us can imagine.”
Davies’ long research process is what led him to the final structure of the film.
“I read these huge biographies. He knew everybody. He went everywhere. I thought, ‘God, how am I going to make sense of this huge life? A huge life.’ So all I did was just respond to what I felt,” he said. “I’m not interested in linear time. ‘This happens, this happens, the end.’ There’s nothing interesting about that.”
As a result, “Benediction” is told in two chapters, with Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi playing younger and older versions of Sassoon, respectively.
Davies also revealed to what degree “Benediction” tells the story of his own life. Part of the film explores Sassoon’s sexuality as a gay man, which is something Davies has struggled with his whole life.
“I come from a large working class family where ordinary sex wasn’t talked about, for God’s sake, let alone that. I was very, very fervid in my Catholicism,” he said. Davies also shared how difficult it was to show the film at home in England.
“It’s always hard. I certainly never watch them, because all your errors and mistakes rise to the surface. You just become hypercritical, and if someone is sitting in front of you, and they move, you think, ‘They’re bored. They’re really bored.’ It’s agonizing.”
“But of all the films I’ve made,” Davies continued, “I think this is the best one. I can stand up and say, if anyone said it’s lousy, I can say, ‘No. You’re wrong. It’s good. I’ve never felt that about any of my films. Because the support I have been given from every level of this film — it’s no longer mine. It’s ours.”