Terence Davies, one of the UK’s finest directors, was unable to get a dramatic film in production for the first decade of this century. Happily, the industry woke up and, since 2011, he has been enjoying a period of healthy prolificity. There are, in his leisurely tribute to Siegfried Sassoon, compositional reminders of earlier classics such as Distant Voices, Still Lives – notably those formal tableaux staring out at a fourth wall. As in his most recent film, the quirky Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion from 2015, Davies pokes his feelers into the life of a much-admired poet. But Benediction goes to some hitherto unvisited corners of DaviesLand. One has to remind oneself that, though endlessly articulate about his gayness in interviews, Davies has, in his features, not yet dealt explicitly with homosexuality.
Anyone familiar with his work will be unsurprised to hear the film is no sort of blithe celebration of the gay life. This version of the war poet (initially Jack Lowden) has as many unhappy liaisons as satisfactory ones before settling down (later as Peter Capaldi) into grumpy marriage with an initially amenable woman. No director is more interested in the awful poignancy of ambient sadness.
Working back projections, archival footage and troubling stills into the action, the picture has the quality of a collage in rough cross-cut triptych (there is a bit of Oh! What a Lovely War in the way ironically jaunty popular music is positioned). Raised in a massive Kentish pile, Sassoon became an unlikely rebel when, in 1917, after having fought his way bravely to a Military Cross, he sent a letter of protest to his commanding officers titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. Narrowly avoiding a court martial, he was declared unfit for service – the word then would have been “shellshock”; now we would have added “post-traumatic stress disorder” – and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. In that first part of the triptych we watch as Sassoon begins his close relationship with the famously short-lived Wilfred Owen (that can’t be a spoiler, surely). Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), the most loyal and amiable of Oscar Wilde’s defenders, is still around to help Sassoon avoid the worst punishment for his rebellion.
We end with Capaldi playing a depressed, constantly acidic Sassoon at the unwelcoming end of the 1960s
The somewhat overextended middle section details social and occasionally romantic dalliances in the era we now associate with the unconvincingly elated “bright young things”. The fine young Irish actor Calam Lynch has fun with the acerbic Stephen Tennant. Jeremy Irvine makes a convincingly vain and precious monster of the legendary songwriter Ivor Novello. There are many sharp lines in these sections – the script is by the director alone – and the acting is first-rate throughout. But the scenes prove a tad repetitive and it is here that Benediction, shot in the first autumn of the pandemic, seems most conspicuously underpopulated.
We end with Capaldi playing a depressed, constantly acidic Sassoon at the unwelcoming end of the 1960s. (Davies, a Liverpudlian who can’t stand The Beatles, must have greatly enjoyed teasing out the ageing poet’s disgust at where he and England have ended up.) Some critics have wondered about the cutting from soft-cornered, gentle-voiced Lowden to the creased, gravelly older actor. True, no effort has been made to present one as a credible version of the other, but the sharp contrast is appropriate for the least smooth and homogeneous of Davies’s films to date. The two performances, rather than playing in a continuum, work as contrasting sides of a fractured psyche.
Sometimes the shifts can be jolting, but Davies returns to more familiar patterns in beautiful, sombre closing sequences that make overpowering use of Vaughn Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. At such moments, one cannot help but wonder at our luck in having Davies back at the heart of the action.
Opens on May 20th