Film Review: Benediction – London Film Festival 2021

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Writer and Director: Terrance Davies

Our cultural image of Siegfried Sassoon is defined by his experience during the First World War, his protest against the conduct of the conflict that had him sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to repair his mind and a vital friendship with Wilfred Own that influenced both poets. Terence Davies’ new biopic Benediction looks to expand that perspective with an introduction to Sassoon’s life amidst the London literati in the 1920s that led to affairs with prominent men and, later, as a much older man reflecting on his achievements. It is an approach that only partially satisfies.

The film starts very well indeed, mixing dramatised scenes of Sassoon’s time in the UK with black and white archival footage of the men in trenches, in the midst of attacks and their ruined bodies in the aftermath. With Sassoon’s verse read over the top, it offers a cinematic and emotive shorthand that immediately demonstrates the soldier-poet’s psychology, the real images and real words making a far more powerful statement that any attempted restaging of Sassoon’s military career.

And of all of that is channelled into the film’s best scenes as Jack Lowden’s Sassoon, alive with impotent rage, grief and emotional caverns that almost surprise him as he opens up to Ben Daniels’ kindly William Rivers who gives Siegfried the room to speak. You could watch Lowden and Daniels in these scenes all day long, they are beautifully pitched, two great actors offering worlds beyond the script. It’s a shame then for Davies who is looking to educate us about Sassoon beyond this period that this is the film’s shining moment.

After that, Benediction rather loses its way, or at least its narrative thread, lurching Sassoon through a series of affairs with cruel, unfaithful men who crush his tender, monogamous heart including a waspish Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and an equally callow Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). These 1920s scenes are too in love with representing the fringes of the Bright Young Things and stopping to gawk at famous faces from Lady Ottoline Morrell to Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), and Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams), deciding that his sex life and not his poetry is all there is to note beyond the Armistice.

Davies cuts forward in time to the older Sassoon, now grave and full or ire towards his former companions, huddled in the ghosts of his war experience. Peter Capaldi’s harder Sassoon, though meaningfully played, would make more sense if the rest of the film had focused on his literary output and rising fame in the 1920s showing how, as a writer and a veteran, he was unable to escape the power of his experiences during the war and their effect on his literary public. That Sassoon, like so many, spent a lifetime exploring these years and trying to find meaning, even salvation, is clear but the journey is too muddled.

None of that detracts one bit from the scale of Jack Lowden’s performance as the younger Sassoon which is the primary reason to see Benediction and the thing that will keep you in your seat until the end. Lowden makes profundities out of the most drab lines of dialogue and fills his Sassoon with a terrific eternal pain, seeking in all the wrong places to heal the invisible wounds the war inflicted on him. The search for something pure and true drives the character, every flicker of pain, melancholy and devastation flashing across Lowden’s shattering performance.

Davies jumbles up the timelines a bit towards the end, almost as though he knows the film has gone awry and tries to draw it back to the lifelong effects of the Great War as a survivor’s guilt and a feeling of failure crowd in on him. Benediction is structurally hit and miss, but the final shot of Lowden’s uniformed Sassoon is an incredibly moving finale to a life lived in remembrance.

Benediction is screening at the London Film Festival.

The Reviews Hub Score

Partially satisfies

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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