If asked to identify the central consonance embedded in director Terrence Davies’ filmography, the immediately obvious trait is its Britishness, or autobiography. The other, and more complex one, is his ability to fashion the self as a function of culture or environment. History and context become central rather than peripheral, and nowhere is this more true than in his latest feature film, “Benediction.”
“Benediction” is Davies’ second stab at biopic, his first being his 2016 film “A Quiet Passion,” centered around poet Emily Dickinson. “Benediction” also follows a poet, Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), a voice of elegiac clarity and resistance during the first world war. Davies reserves a kind of reverence for poets and their unique cocktail of strife: being subject to the emotional toils of life on a heightened and excruciatingly public scale.
This is a reverence not always extended by Davies to artists dallying in “inferior” art forms — the theater, for instance. The closest the film gets to a villain is Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), an actor whom Sassoon begins a relationship with following their introduction to one another at a wealthy English estate, where Sassoon has been employed to recite poetry and Novello to entertain with pithy little showtunes.
Thus Novello and Sassoon begin their tumultuous relationship, and Sassoon is thrust into a milieu of upper-crust gay men, many either actors or socialites situated at the peculiar nexus of culture and repression. Their wealth and proximity to the arts (Sassoon was close with Robbie Ross, who was instrumental in securing the literary legacy of Oscar Wilde following his imprisonment) lend tastemaker status caveated by taboo and unpermissiveness.
Eventually, the desire of these men to sublimate their sexuality becomes irresistible, and many of the men within Sassoon’s circle, including himself, get married. Early in life, Sassoon is entrapped by his grief at losing Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a clear-eyed aspiring poet whom he meets when Sassoon is committed to an army mental hospital for his dissenting views. In his later life, he is trapped by marriage. Even as he flirts with the glamor his fame affords him and cavorts with the likes of Novell, Glen Byam Shaw and Stephen Tennant, he is still rattled by this loss.
As the war loses color within Sassoon’s mind and begins to torment him more subliminally rather than explicitly, it also dwindles on the part of Davies. His scrupulous and significant focus on the horrors of World War I comes to feel like a crutch Davies only falls back on when he intermittently remembers to. When he does invoke memories of the war, he does so violently with black and white archival footage of combat or mutilated corpses — either as a budget allegory for the shock and rupture of war or as a somewhat unsuccessful ploy to immerse viewers in Sassoon’s agonized psyche.
To a cynical viewer, there is much to be disparaged about “Benediction.” Its length, its relentlessly cruel and temperamental characters, and its overall disjointedness occasionally work to drown out the singular voice that the film endeavors to preserve in amber. At other moments, this voice is almost too crystalline: Overreliance on direct quotation and poetic voiceover paradoxically limit the power of Sassoon’s words, and what should be used sparingly becomes a hackneyed device because of its convenience.
Yet the soul of “Benediction” is saved by its rich cinematography and brilliant performances — notably Lowden’s, which subtly and sublimely shows the erosion of Sassoon’s personhood by grief. Lowden does not shoulder the full range of this grief, however: Peter Capaldi is tasked with playing Sassoon in old age when he is at his most hollow, the Sassoon that seeks respite in the Catholic Church.
For Sassoon, poetry is ultimately insufficient. A half measure. It is likely he sought religion as a last ditch effort to ameliorate the woes that art couldn’t. As for a longtime religious skeptic like Davies, he is more ambivalent. Deliverance from worldly ills is endlessly complicated, and to Davies, remains a pipe dream.
Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].