Benediction (2021)

Terence Davis | 2hr 17min

It was only inevitable that a writer-director as dedicated to lyrically drawing out the voices of those who live in the crevices of recent British history as Terence Davies would take a real-life poet as his subject of examination. But it is also in moving closer to horrors of war than he ever has before that Benediction becomes his most scathing look into the past. As a decorated World War I soldier, Siegfried Sassoon speaks with first-hand experience of the war effort, particularly condemning the “political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.” As much of Benediction explores the troubled drama of Sassoon’s personal life, Davies breaks up the narrative with the poet’s elegiac musings playing out over black-and-white archival footage of the frontlines, filtering this grim reality through the mind of an artist driven to eloquent expressions of anger, melancholy, and heartbreak.

Though Sassoon accepts his position as an outsider, being both a soldier declared unfit for service and a closeted homosexual, he finds great relief in letting his thoughts spill out in the written word, and similarly finds himself drawn to other men who pursue their own forms of self-expression. Early on, he and his poet friend, Wilfred, engage in a tango brimming with sexual desire, and later when he meets actor and musician Ivor Novello playing a cheeky tune on the piano, Davies very slowly tracks his camera forward, like one magnet being drawn into the field of another. As Sassoon continues to move between affairs, Davies’ narrative sprawls outwards in tangential and, at times, messy ways, touching on many lives in a large ensemble which isn’t always as fully fleshed out as one would hope.

But within the midst of it all, Jack Lowden’s performance of a young Sassoon remains a powerful force, delivering a humility that at times verges on self-loathing, and yet never loses its sensitivity and warmth that so many others lack. Where the proclamations of Novello that his talents are a gift to his country reveal a toxic, untempered arrogance, Sassoon stands in stark contrast to such narcissistic manners. As he recognises, there is an unavoidable “egotism” which lies at the heart of his desire for his artistic catharsis to be heard. The mere fact that he possesses such self-awareness though reveals an authentic modesty to his endeavours, as he strives to create beauty in a world that he believes is very much lacking it.

Beyond the immediate, rousing impact of Sassoon’s poetry, Davies ensures that such efforts are not in vain either, crafting an impressionistic world around him that seems to spring forth from the poet’s ideals. The graceful camerawork and photography that we have come to associate with Davies’ elegant style is unfortunately toned down here in Benediction, and one might theorise this is a sacrifice he makes to let the ‘important’ subject matter speak for itself. But this is not at all to say that it is gone entirely, as he is still making purposeful choices in letting his images flow along in delicate long dissolves, connecting scenes in effortless match shots as simple as that of a tennis court drenched in rain to Sassoon swimming in a pool. In more significant moments, Davies will circle his camera around to the back of Sassoon’s head as the background morphs around him into a sort of photographic mural of the war, visually manifesting those memories which continue to motivate his poetry.

Indeed, these subjective, personal accounts of history are what fascinate Davies above all else, and towards the end of Benediction in perhaps its greatest shot, his long dissolves literalise the fuzzy intangibility of such memories. We watch an older Sassoon played by Peter Capaldi stand framed in the window of his home of 1940s Britain, the frosted glass partially concealing his expression as he gazes out at the rain. Just off to his right, images of his past loved ones fade in and out, still present with him but ultimately incorporeal, separated by that pane of glass that leaves him just as indistinct as them. As Davies illustrates, it is not his face, but his words that will survive the disappearing decades. Words that carry moving indictments of a war all too heavily focused on “aggression and conquest”, which demonstrated a refined ability to speak for many other Brits who felt the same way, and that restored the world with at least a tiny bit of beauty that was lost in a traumatic, global conflict.

Benediction is out in Australian theatres on 21st April, 2022.

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