Terence Davies makes no attempt to recreate the putrid trenches of the Western Front in his new film about war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Best known as a mentor to Wilfred Owen, he was awarded the Military Cross for “outstanding bravery” – shortly before he chose to boldly denounce war as impermissible in 1917.
Despite the explosive symphonies of mud and blood that propel films like 1917 or Dunkirk – and you might recognize the latter’s Jack Lowden as young Sassoon here, while ex-Doctor Who Peter Capaldi plays the poet in his fall years – writer-director Davies is of the belief that no recreation, no matter how big the budget, can claim to come close to the horrifying quiddity of war.
In Benediction, the ninth feature by the great British director (who auspiciously debuted in 1988 with an autobiographical symphonic poem Distant Voices, Still Lives), archival footage – of men clutching their bayonets and staring in the camera lens; of crumbling corpses left to rot – imply the struggle through which Sassoon’s poetic and moral conscience was forged.
Often used for flashbacks, these degraded black-and-white images contrast with the rest of the film and its various refined interiors, rendered with precision by cinematographer Nicola Daley. The haunting power of such fragments comes precisely from the feeling that the reality they show exists more than a century away from the viewer; rather than the simulated immersion offered by shrapnel-strewn spectacle works, there is a sense of an unbridgeable gulf in the experience.
But in Davies’ narrative, Sassoon’s story is as much a tragic gay romance as it is a war movie.
Wilfred Owen’s death in battle – just a week before Armistice Day 1918 – will leave an indelible mark on Sassoon, who was not just a mentor to the young poet (played by Matthew Tennyson), but a suitor . Their mutual infatuation erupted in the unlikely refuge of Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where they would produce some of their finest work (including Owens’s Anthem for the Convicted Youththe scathing accompaniment of one of the film’s documentary montages), while being treated for what will soon be called “electroshock”.
Those familiar with the filmmaker’s work – his domestic worlds of small pleasures and painful revelations – would no doubt guess him utterly unconcerned with military strategy or the politics of a particular attack or retreat. The conflict that preoccupies him most in Benediction, as always, is one that plays out on the battlefield of the mind, where the self is both aggressor and victim.
But the extent to which Davies brings Sassoon’s homosexuality to the fore suggests a new openness in the septuagenarian, whose struggles with his own orientation – growing up Catholic in working-class 1950s Liverpool – made homosexuality a perspective. deeply agonizing – have already found expression in the pent-up sexual drives of his various on-screen analogues, from the prepubescent Bud of 1992’s The Long Day Closes to the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, the subject of his latest film, 2016 A quiet passion.
“Do you want to stay? Just a few more moments,” Siegfried Wilfred begs on the gravel path outside the hospital, his return to the trenches imminent. Face to face, eyes lowered, the silence is imbued with emotions that propriety prevented from expressing themselves. An off-screen voice beckons Wilfred; the two men are not – never will be – alone, and instead of something more intimate, a handshake should suffice as a goodbye gesture.
For those rusty over their high school history, Davies quickly quashes the idea of a possible reunion: Siegfried’s voiceover — fittingly, he’s the narrator of his own life — announces Wilfred’s death as the car pulls away from Craiglockhart, moments after their goodbye.
There’s a similar story breakdown in the way Davies – who has always favored narratives that develop in emotional logic rather than linear time – intercuts scenes from Capaldi’s Siegfried, gray hair and pinched face, with those of Lowden; the young man is on the way to an intensely embittered middle age, poorly married, this future disaffection inscribed in the traumas of his youth.
Before seeking absolution in the arms of Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips in his youth, then Gemma Jones) and finally of Jesus, Siegfried tries his hand at the soft-spoken artist Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine, who would not have not look out of place in a 90s erotic thriller film), swishy socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and stage actor Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth) – his entanglements revealing the wild upper crust subset grown from London; the privileged few able to cross parties and restaurants with impunity.
These men dazzle the poet, but ultimately turn out to be too changeable and too quick to weary of his affections.
“Who can know the secrets of a human heart? Ivor asks casually, in dismissal of his banter with others. “Usually those who don’t,” comes Siegfried’s sour reply. (What a boon that Benediction offers Davies a chance to indulge his sharp, clouded mind in his more languorous work.)
Like A Quiet Passion, in which Cynthia Nixon played Dickinson, Benediction is a portrait of an artist who was outdated in his time and burdened with underdog status even in his own select circles.
Of the approximately 1,800 poems that Dickinson wrote during his lifetime, only a handful were published, while Sassoon’s work – although it showed a directness of style and subject which influenced modernists – was rendered unfashionable by the arrival of TS Eliot and Ezra Pound. (“Eliot received the Order of Merit – and the Nobel Prize,” sniffs Siegfried of Capaldi. “I had to settle for the Queen’s Award for Poetry.”)
And Sassoon, like Dickinson, would increasingly choose monastic retreat over the barrage of cruelties and complexities of life.
Benediction may be a war movie, but the devastation wrought is far more subtle.
Benediction is now in theaters.
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