Following his biographic drama A Quiet Passion (2016) about American poet Emily Dickinson, director Terence Davies turns his attention to British World War I poet and author Siegfried Sassoon (played by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi). Building on the shorter Sunset Song (2015), a coming-of-age story from the late 1800s through the end of the First World War, the two biopics convey Davies’ interest in a life lived.
Benediction opens with Sassoon and his brother amidst the social elite attending a concert in the summer of 1914, the year the hostilities of the First World War began. Then, we see them brimming with enthusiasm as they buy their uniforms. To contemporary eyes and ears, the attendant passes the rather peculiar remark, “I think we should start with the shirts. You can’t have your shirts too dark sir.” The audience can’t help but be struck by the naïveté, or the stiff upper lip towards the war that would leave the fields in France sodden red.
Immediately, the enthusiasm for the adventure of war takes a sullen turn when sad thoughts of loss creep into Sassoon’s voiceover. Only a moment before, over the concert, he spoke the melancholic words, “The audience pricks an intellectual ear. Stravinsky, quite the concert of the year. Forgetting now the hullabaloo they made, the audience pricks an intellectual ear. Bassoons begin, synchronically envelopes our auditory innocence and brings to me, I must admit, some drift of things somnific and seminal and adolescent. Men in boaters, far from Henley. Girls in pink and blue taffeta. In that long summer I hunted, played cricket, but only watched tennis. God was in his heaven and there were sausages for breakfast.”
Sassoon’s adolescent memories are replaced by the sights and sounds of warfare that will torment him the rest of his life. If his early poetry was susceptible to the romantic sentiments of conflict, Davies begins his film around the time Sassoon openly criticised the war effort as one of conquest, not defence.
Posted to a hospital in Scotland for his nervous disposition, he meets fellow poet Wilfred Owen. From here, Davies explores the key moments of Sassoon’s life, his love affairs, notably with the actor Ivor Novello and the aristocrat Stephen Tennant, as well as his doomed marriage to Hester Gatty.
Early on Davies deliberately conveys not only the loss of lives, but tries to bring to it a directness. In his hands the visceral horror of the past penetrates the fog of time, remembering the war’s brutality and the unnecessary loss of life. History has taught us that the conflict was pointless, the military leadership were indifferent to a failing strategy and the cost of what was becoming a war of attrition. Davies adds a powerful voice to remind us of this horrific chapter of our modern history that complements works such as Blackadder Goes Forth (Richard Curtis, Ben Elton, 1989), and its use of comedy to comment on the war’s absurdity, or R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End (1928), that was most recently adapted in 2017 by director Saul Dibb and writer Simon Reade.
Davies shows his aesthetic eye, setting Sassoon’s poetry to archival images of the conflict. It stirs a deeper sadness for those that lost their lives, the words set to these images forcing us to confront the abstract reality taught to us in history class. The director achieves this through juxtaposition – the camaraderie of men on the troop trains, offset with the images of maimed soldiers. In a masterstroke late in the film, Wilfred Owen’s poem Disabled (1917), is used to juxtapose the reality for those who had served, to the carefree boys and girls who the legless soldier in his wheelchair can hear in the park.
The use of Owen’s poem acknowledges the important relationship Davis and Owen shared. Following the war years, Sassoon’s personal life is a messy series of affairs, but the intriguing relationship that get less attention is Davis’ marriage to Hester, and his relationship to his son, George. Davies’ decision to spend too much time with Novello and Tennant compromises the opportunity to explore more thoroughly the interesting aspects of Sassoon’s personality.
Capaldi’s portrayal of the older man emphasises traits seen in the younger poet. This gives us a different vantage point from which to view the character. There’s something unique about intercutting between a young and older version of a person in film, to witness how the director conveys who they were compared to who they will become.
It’s habitual to view creative types differently, their art a form of transcendence, and yet here we see the humble reality that powerful creative voices are mortal, even as mundane as they are interesting. Sassoon tells George, “I would have liked to have been recognised, in some significant way; for my work.” Like so many artists he struggles with that need for a response.
This doesn’t escape Davies, who explains what connects every artist during our interview for A Quiet Passion: “You want a response, you need a response and if there is no response or a response is indifferent, where do you find the courage to go on?”
As with any biographical film, it can only scratch the surface of the subject to offer an impression. Speaking about his Dickinson biopic Davies says, “I’ve only done a fictitious view of her life through my prism. It’s not a definitive life, it’s only my view of her.”
In Benediction, he uses Sassoon’s poetry to get deeper into the poet’s soul to capture a more profound impression, as he did with Dickinson. Avoiding the subject of Sassoon’s death from stomach cancer, Davies instead chooses to retain a focus on the driving theme of the film: all the boys and men that were slaughtered in the War whom Sassoon can’t forget.
As one has come to expect from the filmmaker, Davies stirs the emotions. Sassoon is a victim of the past, the metaphorical death that happens as we experience and grow became stagnant for him. Whereas Davies found a way to narrow the focus on Dickinson’s life in A Quiet Passion, he struggles to here.
In spite of its shortcomings, Benediction reminds us of the director’s artistry and his ability to craft compelling drama through dialogue scenes. The pleasure that comes with experiencing a Terence Davies film has not yet faded, and in his latest, a youthful energy intertwines with the maturity.