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Benediction review – a devastating ballad from Britain’s greatest living filmmaker

Terence Davies delivers another immensely personal lament, based on the life of English soldier and war poet Siegfried Sassoon

Only Terence Davies could spend his entire career steadfastly committed to depicting life’s misery, while still keeping cinephiles fervently coming back for more. Benediction, his patient, free-verse biopic of Siegfried Sassoon, sidesteps clichéd beats to lament the life of a man with whom he feels a heartbreaking connection. Jack Lowden stars as the English war poet struggling to reconcile his lofty ambitions with life’s hardships, while Peter Capaldi is the dour Sassoon in middle age, looking to Catholic exculpation as a way to cope with his wasted, wanting life.

Many of Davies’ works deals with fettered regret, repressed longing, and an almost self-conscious view of sex and sexuality. In heartbreaking scenes between Sassoon and William Rivers (Ben Daniels), a doctor he meets at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Sassoon expresses this inability to take risks: “I remain passive, so I cope.” While the poet was content to perform “an act of wilful defiance” in his stand against the senselessness of the First World War, this bravery did not extend to his personal life.

But as unassumingly potent as Sassoon’s poetry itself – which is read aloud in crisp, pleasing RP voiceover throughout – is the film’s depiction of love, in the scant moments in which it surfaces. One such scene is a wordless exchange between Sassoon and fellow war scribe Wilfred Owen, before the latter’s fatal return to the front line: it is a silent, chaste and heartbreaking moment, laden with a gentleness that belies the monstrously unfair situation at hand.

Sassoon’s “pretty boys,” as his mother (Geraldine James) calls them, are an array of handsome yet caddish men who, as members of a hollow glitterati, are ill-suited to Sassoon’s quest for romantic fidelity. Among them are Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine, in Adam Lambert guyliner), Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and Glen Shaw (Tom Blyth). Their conversations froth with sharp-tongued irreverence, delicious wit and catty remarks; Novello is particularly impetuous and unkind, hiding behind scathing putdowns (“She’s not a woman, she’s an animated meringue”). While Sassoon covets their beauty, their often crude and superficial priorities are a world away from his careful compositions of time spent in the trenches. Internalised homophobia, among other factors, leads him to settle for and with a woman named Hetty (Kate Phillips), who shares his love of dancing and little else.

Davies’ films often have the feeling of sweeping through a dream. His camera roves – lonely and searching, tessellating and fading – tracing the edges of bittersweet memories and bringing forth a font of emotion. It was his approach in the semi-autobiographical masterpieces Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, and the same approach is adopted here. Perhaps the director can’t separate himself from his subjects. “I never said this to Terence,” Lowden stated when talking of the filming process, “but I was struck by how much I see of him in the character of Sassoon.”

Indeed, the director has repeatedly stated in interviews his unhappiness with being gay, and his own perceived failure as a director. Lowden is remarkable in bringing this stilted, melancholic vision to the fore, his last embers of hope contrasting harshly with Peter Capaldi’s self-flagellating incarnation of the poet in older age. Capaldi’s lines, in particular, feel like Davies speaking to us directly. In an interview with Variety, the director confirms this: “There are parts of Benediction that are all me. 'Why do you hate the modern world so?' 'Because it’s younger than I am.' That line is all me.”

Wherein lies the film’s melancholy: there is no armistice for Sassoon, whose stolen youth and acute loneliness spill out into a heartbreaking outpour of emotion at the film’s climax, set to the devastating words of Wilfred Owen’s posthumously published work “Disabled.” It is a moving, powerful ending that itself should be manifesto enough against the existence of war, or a life lived in the shadows.

Still, one only needs to turn to Sassoon’s poetry to see this. Take “To His Dead Body,” which laments: “When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried / Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died / Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head / Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.” These lines alone could serve as a synopsis for what amounts to a crushing, elegiac masterpiece.

Benediction is released in UK cinemas on 20 May.

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