Few filmmakers are as deeply versed in sorrow as Terence Davies, the British director of such films as Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Long Day Closes, and, more recently, A Quiet Passion.
A cinematic essayist and poet, Davies never entirely forsakes narrative but often transcends it, giving his work a reflective quality, the emotional weight of living as transients in a time-bound world. Davies knows the grief of understanding that time ultimately swallows us all. Davies’s films can be seen as invitations to mourn.
On its surface, Benediction -- Davies's latest film -- might be called a bio-pic -- and in some respects it is. The movie tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon, a poet whose conscience and outrage was formed in the trenches of World War I.
Struck by the brutality and barbarism of war, Sassoon deemed himself a soldier whose duty included preserving the lives of other soldiers. To make his point, Sassoon issued what he called A Soldier's Declaration. He withdrew from the fight in1917.
A decorated soldier, Sassoon wasn’t a pacifist. He argued that young men were being sacrificed to a policy that needlessly prolonged the bloodshed. The politicians had made dying on the battlefield pointless.
Davies deals with Sassoon's life as a morally outraged soldier and, later, as a disaffected poet and gay man who suffered disappointment and rejection in his personal life.
Jack Lowden portrays Sassoon as a young man and Peter Capaldi portrays the aging, embittered Sassoon.
Moving between Sassoon's youth and his later life, Davies creates moody scenes, sometimes punctuating them with real war footage, each a small plaintive statement. So many gone and for what?
Sassoon's rejection of combat was followed by an enforced stint in mental hospital where he met and developed deep feelings for Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), another poet. Ordered back to the front, Owen had the misfortune of being killed on the battlefield a week before the war-ending armistice was signed.
Davies devotes considerable attention to the gay circle in which Sassoon traveled after the war. In addition to popular entertainer Ivor Novelllo (Jeremy Irvine), Sassoon had relationships with socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and actor/theater director Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth).
A gay man himself, Davies idealizes little about gay life in the 1920s and '30s. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain during most of Sassoon's life but the small gay community Davies depicts was no blissful haven. Cruelties were not uncommon and many of the characters unleash them with lacerating wit.
Sassoon eventually married. He found a woman who had no illusions about who he was -- Kate Phillips as a young bride and Gemma Jones as Sassoon's older wife. Perhaps Sassoon felt marriage would give him respite from the whiplash ferocities of life among the gay social elite or maybe he was looking for stability.
Lowden has the easier task of portraying the young Sassoon. Capaldi must play a mean-spirited poet who battles with his son George (Richard Goulding). An aggressively skeptical George wondered about his father's late-life conversion to Catholicism; Sassoon evidently believed Catholicism might help him find permanence in a world full of kaleidoscopic shifts.
It's always dangerous to look for the creator in the creation, but many have suggested that Davies, or at least part of himself, resides somewhere inside this story. I’m not sure it matters.
I can't say that Davies brings Sassoon fully to life as a writer but as has been the case with much of Davies work, Benediction is at its best when it tries to hold the ever-vanishing past close, fixing it in art and memory. A futile pursuit perhaps but Davies imbues it with elevating sadness and beauty.