Film

Benediction, Terence Davies’ film about the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, is a fascinating failure. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Benediction

Peter Capaldi as Siegfried Sassoon in Terence Davies’ Benediction.
Peter Capaldi as Siegfried Sassoon in Terence Davies’ Benediction.
Credit: Courtesy Rialto Distribution

Terence Davies’ Benediction, a biography of Siegfried Sassoon, is a shambles. The first section of the film uses archival footage of World War I and includes readings from Sassoon’s war poetry and his still rousing anti-war statement, “A Soldier’s Declaration”. It suggests that Davies’ intention is to create an essay structure similar in style to his outstanding documentary of Liverpool, Of Time and the City (2008). Yet the experimental urge that animates the first act is largely abandoned once the war is over. The film loses focus and becomes a stolid, conventional biopic.

Nevertheless, since first seeing it I have been constantly mulling it over in my head, querying the filmmaker’s intentions and mistakes. Benediction has a great subject and an undoubted emotional resolve. I do think it a mess, but I am urging the reader to chase it out and watch it. This failure has a resonance and power lacking in the objectively more confident and “successful” works of lesser, pedestrian directors.

The young soldier and poet is played with calm dignity by Jack Lowden. He conveys Sassoon’s upper-class privilege but also his seditious daring. Then, in an abrupt cut, we traverse the decades to the older poet, now played by Peter Capaldi. He is sitting in a pew in a Catholic Church, his adult son, George (Richard Goulding) behind him. George is confused by his father abandoning atheism to convert to Catholicism. Capaldi is pitch-perfect in conveying the old man’s seemingly intense fury. Yet the script, also written by Davies, fails to persuade us that the dashing young poet is capable of turning into this embittered old man. The question that George asks his parent – what he seeks in religious faith – is never answered.

A key structural fault is that the emotional climax occurs within that first act. After the publishing of “A Soldier’s Declaration” and its reading in the house of commons, Sassoon’s friends and family ensured that he wasn’t court martialled and was instead interned in a military hospital. There he met another young soldier and poet, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson).

I initially resisted Tennyson as Owen. His performance is fey and tentative, clashing with the sense of purpose one gleans from the iconic photographs of the poet, as well as the directness and vitality we respond to in his verse. Yet, as the love between the men emerged, I found myself responding with greater charity to Tennyson’s portrayal. The platonic, intense love between the two young soldiers is subtly conveyed in the performances and Davies’ sombre staging. When Owen is recalled to the trenches and is killed, it is shattering. We hear his “Anthem for Doomed Youth” over archival imagery and we share Sassoon’s grief. It is the film’s most powerful moment.

Even in these early scenes, I felt critical of Davies’ choices. Unlike Of Time and the City, where the archival footage had a resonant, contrapuntal relationship to the filmmaker’s narration, there was no elegiac grace to the footage we see in Benediction. The images detract from, rather than enrich, the film. The dialogue is often stilted and anachronistic.

Once the war is over, the film becomes more conventionally biographical. Sassoon becomes one of the Bright Young Things of 1920s London high society. At a party he meets the popular composer Ivor Novello, and the two men begin an affair. As played by Jeremy Irvine, Novello is poisonously arrogant. Sassoon is clearly unimpressed by Novello’s talent and Irvine’s playing is so archly repellent that we have no understanding of what attracts Sassoon to him. This is also true for the two other key relationships in Sassoon’s postwar life, with the socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), the woman he will eventually marry.

I think that the cutting between the younger and older Sassoon is meant to show us that Sassoon’s surliness, and emotional coldness, is a result of his having to repress his sexuality. The older Sassoon is vile to his wife, played as an older woman by Gemma Jones, and mercilessly unforgiving to the older Tennant (Anton Lesser) when the now aged man visits him and his wife. However, given that we’ve never believed in Sassoon’s love for Tennant, the scene is jarring and the cruelty inexplicable.

Even the mise en scène suggests a different film. The scene is filmed in unflattering close-up, the camera fixed on Hester’s pinched, pained face, and the decor is suggestive of the claustrophobic working-class milieu that Davies explored in his first great work, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). It is as if the director is trying to graft two different films together. Lowden and Capaldi are not playing the same character.

Owen’s shadow looms over Sassoon’s life. Sassoon idealises the dead young poet, and his lovers and wife are competing with a ghost. What is left unexplored is the competition between Owen and Sassoon, given Owen was the greater poet. Letters discovered in 2016 revealed Sassoon was bitterly envious of his success. I think it an egregious mistake that Davies refuses to confront this tension, to interrogate what it means for a writer to have to struggle with both love and envy. In not doing so, he betrays his characters and undermines his actors. These are talented performers, struggling to convey emotional and existential states that are not present in the writing.

There is another shadow that looms over Benediction: that of the great English director Derek Jarman. Almost from the beginning, I was reminded of Jarman’s audacious and challenging film essay biographies on Edward II, Caravaggio and Wittgenstein. As Davies showed from his earliest short films, he is not afraid of experimentation in film language. Yet as a working-class man who came relatively late to filmmaking, his trajectory is very different to Jarman’s, whose aesthetic was forged in haute avant-garde collaborations across cinema, dance, the visual arts and theatre.

Davies’ practice has been much more solitary and hermetic. Benediction includes a sneering portrayal of the poet Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams), which suggests his contempt for this arguably elite avant-garde history. This hostility mars the film. He’s indebted to Jarman for the form and structure of his film, yet he doesn’t trust the history of that aesthetic.

There is another significant difference between Jarman and Davies, and that is in the latter’s ambivalence to sensuality on screen. I thought Distant Voices, Still Lives an astonishing work about sexual and emotional repression, which explores how it stifles and poisons the possibilities for queer love and desire. It is no accident that Davies’ greatest film remains his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (2000). In focusing on a female protagonist, Davies was able get under the skin of his character, assisted by the staggeringly honest performance of Gillian Anderson. His clear contempt for her social class was mitigated by his empathetic kindness to her character.

It’s a sympathy he can’t extend to Sassoon’s lovers. The one sex scene in Benediction is calamitous. The blocking and framing are inept and the editing rushed and confusing. It’s as if Davies was attracted to Sassoon for the clarity and purpose of his war poetry and the bravery of his anti-war stance, and then found himself unable to comprehend the poet’s unapologetic sexual appetite. Any sense of Sassoon’s sensuality comes from Lowden’s joyous and committed performance.

Benediction fails, yet it remains fascinating. In part, it is because the horror of World War I – the devastating and insane slaughter of youth by the Great Powers that inaugurated the collapse of Western colonialism – still affects us. The film, however, is not only about the war. It is also about writers and artists, and it is here where the failure of conception and execution is most clear.

In the final scene of the film, the older Sassoon is on a park bench. We hear a sonorous recital of Owen’s poem “Disabled” and the old man morphs into the young Sassoon. Even here Davies doesn’t trust his instincts or his actors. He makes the words literal, showing us the wounded soldier and the naive young girls and boys oblivious to his fate. In the interminable last shot, the camera fixes on Lowden’s tearful face.

I felt nothing: Davies’ busy imagery obfuscates the poem’s power. He’s the wrong director for this film. He doesn’t the trust the poets. 

Benediction is screening in selected cinemas.

ARTS DIARY

MULTIMEDIA Sarah Brasier & Matthew Harris: Spiritual Poverty

Gertrude Glasshouse, Melbourne, until July 30

EXHIBITION Art and Activism in the Nuclear Age

POP Gallery, Brisbane, July 6-16

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THEATRE Cicada

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Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, July 9–October 3

LAST CHANCE

MUSICAL An American in Paris

Theatre Royal, Sydney, until July 2

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 2, 2022 as "Trust the poets".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Damascus and 7½. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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