The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - BENEDICTION | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - BENEDICTION

benediction review
Biopic of English poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Terence Davies

Starring: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels

benediction poster

Writer/director Terence Davies follows up his Emily Dickinson biopic, A Quiet Passion, with another story of a tortured poet. "A Quiet Passion" might be an equally fitting title for this look at the life of British poet Siegfried Sassoon, best known for his documenting of the horrors he had experienced in the trenches of World War I in his verse. Davies is a quintessentially English filmmaker, and Benediction is a very English film, one where characters keep their passions largely silent out of societal necessity.

benediction review

Davies' approach to Sassoon's story is similar in some ways to Abel Ferrara's Pasolini biopic, looking past the artist to find a very human figure, one tortured by guilt, doubt and loneliness. As a young man Sassoon is played by the handsome Jack Lowden, while in his later years he's portrayed by the craggy-faced Peter Capaldi. I don’t mean any disrespect to Capaldi, who looks pretty damn good for a man in his sixties, but the contrast is striking and plays a vital role in the narrative. As a handsome young gay man fortunate enough to move in high society circles where such assets are prized, the young Sassoon seems to have the world at his feet, while later his glum, elder self finds himself stuck in a loveless heterosexual sham marriage. "Why do you hate the modern world?" the poet's son asks him. "Because it's younger than I am" is his caustic reply. We're left in little doubt that the 76-year-old Davies, whose films have always had a nostalgic tinge, may see a little of himself in the aging Sassoon.

It's as a young man that we spend most of our time with Sassoon however, picking up as he is discharged from the war for disorderly conduct by opposing the conflict. Much to his annoyance, strings are pulled so he can avoid a court martial that carries a possible death sentence. The terms of the agreement require him to spend time in a Scottish psychiatric hospital, where thanks to a sympathetic doctor (Ben Daniels) he comes to terms with his sexuality and enters the first of several key relationships with the poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). Owen's subsequent death in France adds to Sassoon's survivor's guilt, which dogs him throughout the rest of his days.

benediction review

Plunging himself into the excesses of the post-war Jazz Age, Sassoon finds himself a celebrated figure, with men and women throwing themselves at his feet. He enters a doomed relationship with entertainer Ivor Novello (an unrecognisable Jeremy Irvine), for whom Sassoon is just one in a line of pretty boys to share his bed. Novello is portrayed as a cad of almost cartoonish levels, and were it not for his narcissistic preening himself in every reflective surface he passes, we might compare him to a vampire, sucking the lifeforce out of adoring young men until they're of no further use to him. Even more superficial is socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), portrayed as such a stereotypical fop that were Benediction not made by a gay man it might be viewed as problematic. Yet despite how awful these figures are, Sassoon finds himself in love and ultimately heartbroken. I can think of few films that have portrayed the dating world as coldly as Benediction.

benediction review

Benediction is very much a companion piece to A Quiet Passion, with Davies transferring the storytelling template he adopted for Dickinson onto Sassoon. Again the poet's words are heard in voiceover, and again Davies manages to come up with dialogue of his own that we swallow as having come from the mind of someone who wields words like a wizard wields a wand. There are cutting barbs flung around here of the sort Oscar Wilde might be proud of, and while the film is tinged with sadness it's not without its laughs. Like Dickinson, Sassoon is shown to be someone who uses humour as a defence mechanism. But thanks to the performances of Lowden and Capaldi, Davies makes it clear that while Sassoon may be laughing on the outside, he's burdened with an eternally tortured soul.

 is on Netflix UK/ROI now.

2022 movie reviews