A Review of Benediction
Biopics are their own genre of film; they dramatize the life of a real person, usually a public or historical figure. In 2022 several biopics were released - some historically accurate portrayals, others more imaginative or satirical interpretations of the people they aimed to depict - Elvis, Blonde (about Marilyn Monroe), Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, The Fabelmans (based on the life of Steven Spielberg) and even the upcoming film, I Wanna Dance With Somebody (about Whitney Houston). Biopics can give us insight into the events that shaped the people at the center of their stories. They can provide us with greater context for understanding the artists we love or admire - their songs, paintings, or the poems they wrote - and what life events made them who they are/were. Oftentimes, the allure of a biopic is the chance to experience this beloved art in real-time when they were creating it, making biopics of popular musicians one of the most successful topics of this genre. Showcasing other forms of art while still holding an audience’s attention can be a much more difficult task in the biopic genre and, at times, this proves to be the case in Terence Davies’ film, Benediction.
Terence Davies is well known in the UK for his 1988 film, Distant Voices, Still Lives, illustrating the life of one British family, told out of order, from various members’ points of view. He directed and adapted Edith Wharton’s novel, The House of Mirth (2000), starring Gillian Anderson, and he later wrote and directed A Quiet Passion about American poet Emily Dickinson. The biopic, it seems, is in this man’s wheelhouse. In Benediction, Davies depicts the life and work of English poet Siegfried Sassoon, a man who fought in and rallied against WWI, the very topic of his most popular (and most controversial) works of poetry. Sassoon was also a homosexual man during a time when it was considered a criminal offense. Davies takes a look at the life of Sassoon and how it was shaped by war, tragedy, and destructive personal relationships that helped him become a prolific poet and an outspoken pacifist against WWI. Siegfried is played by Scottish actor Jack Lowden (Slow Horses, Dunkirk). His performance is one of the more heartbreaking ones I have watched this year. It is Lowden’s thoughtful, anguished yet charismatic performance that makes Benediction something special to watch.
In both real life and Davies’ film, Siegfried Sasson grew up in rural England. He and his younger brother go off to fight in WWI as joyous young men ready for an adventure. Siegfried loses his brother to the war and ends up in the hospital with injuries after receiving a Military Cross of honor for saving another man’s life. It’s during this time in the hospital that he first crafts an outspoken letter, to the military and Parliament, decrying WWI and refusing to return to fight after he heals from his injuries. His words of anti-war protest were published in The Times in 1917 and read in Parliament, however, instead of facing the consequences of his actions in front of a firing squad as a conscientious objector, he was shipped off to a war hospital for symptoms of being “shell-shocked.”
Siegfried, by all rites, has nothing wrong with him, but he is treated with therapy for grief, anger, and his “unpatriotic” views of the war. Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels) treats their therapy sessions more like scheduled discussion time to engage with a poet he admires, and he encourages Sassoon to continue writing even while being treated at his facility. Dr. Rivers is a kind father figure and a fellow closeted gay man. When he asks Siegfried about his personal interactions, Sassoon describes himself as, “quick to tears, slow to love.” He keeps a wall up around himself in an effort of protection during a time when being openly homosexual was not an option. However, while there in the hospital, Siegfried meets another poet who edits the hospital’s literary magazine (real-life poet Wilfred Owen, played by Matthew Tennyson) and they develop a relationship despite never acting on it physically while they are together. They clearly love each other and shape each other’s writing and yet, Siegfried never takes any steps to consummate their relationship. Lowden plays Siegfried’s emotional state in such an understated way that it is both entirely relatable and so painfully British. The closest the poets come to physical contact is during one of my favorite scenes in the movie when the two dance the tango together cheek to cheek before being interrupted by an army officer. Owen is eventually cleared for service and is killed in combat only a week later, further fueling Siegfried’s grief and his passion for writing and speaking out against the war.
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
“Suicide in the Trenches” by Siegfried Sassoon
Davies uses Lowden’s narration (as Siegfried) to share his actual poetry with the audience while blending it with real archival footage of the war. His voice is steady and calm but underneath it is loss and fire. Being able to hear that poetry read aloud makes it come alive but the stark photos and newsreel footage showing the decimation of trench warfare do not conjure up enough of an emotional response from the viewer. I realize that not all films have the budget of Sam Mendes’ epic work 1917, but as I watched Benediction, I often wondered whether any attempt to recreate some of the scenes of war with Sassoon would have helped connect the audience more with his poetry than simply watching real footage from so long ago. I found that the events that were depicted in Siegfried’s life post-war were far more engaging and heartbreaking.
In the years following his time spent fighting in WWI, Siegfried Sassoon had several relationships with men that all seemed to end in heartbreak. Lowden portrays Sassoon as someone who was emotionally passive as a means of protection but often to his detriment. He was involved with the selfish cad and musical theater actor, Ivor Novello, played with excellent bitchiness by Jeremy Irvine (War Horse). Then there is a succession of lovers after his relationship with Novello ends (including Novello’s ex, Glenn Byam Shaw), but the most notable is Stephen Tennant, played by Calam Lynch (Bridgerton, Derry Girls). Tennant and Sassoon were together for nearly six years. In the film, Tennant, who is sick with Tuberculosis, goes off on a trip to recuperate in Bavaria but cheats on Sassoon and ends the relationship in a letter “from his doctor.” Later in the film, we watch an older Sassoon, played by Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) chew out an older Tennant, played by the excellent Anton Lesser (Andor, Game of Thrones) thirty years later. Siegfried is now married (to a woman) and has one son. He is seemingly miserable.
This shift to watching an older embittered Sassoon during his futile search for meaning is far less glamorous than watching the younger Sassoon during his heyday in 1920s London, but it is just as crushing. He and his son, George, can’t seem to connect despite the honest and evident joy we saw across the young Siegfried’s face after his son’s birth. He hung his hopes for “redemption” initially upon his young wife, Hester Gatty, played by Kate Phillips (if you know her, you love her, from Peaky Blinders), and later on his son. When it didn’t work, he grew resentful of both. Young Siegfried, nursing a broken heart from Tennant, decides to marry a woman. Initially, he is completely honest with Hester that he has only been with men. She already knows and is still willing to take a chance on him, but deep down, we know she should not. The scene of Siegfried assembling his friends (several who were gay men who had also married women) in a chapel before his nuptials is like the meeting of a secret society. His friends understand why he is doing what he is doing but none of them seem too happy about his choice to do so. It makes you think about what might have happened to Sassoon and his poetry if he had been able to lead a life openly as a gay man. Would he have moved on from his anti-war poetry and found another muse? Would he have found happiness? Salvation? In the final years of his life, a lonely older Sassoon turned to Catholicism.
In Benediction, when older Siegfried decides to convert to Catholicism later in life, both his son and wife do not understand why, but we, the audience, have seen Siegfried struggle for meaning again and again throughout his young life as it plays out on film. “I don’t even know what I’m doing here,” Siegfried exclaims frustrated, holding back tears, while he sits in Dr. Rivers’ office attending mandated therapy. Lowden is exceptional at conveying Sassoon’s inner turmoil and frustration with the events around him as he struggles with how to deal with them. Before the film’s conclusion, we watch older Siegfried walk home alone from going to the theater in London with his son. On his way, he decides to stop and sit on a bench for a few minutes; he seems lost in thought. We are then transported back in time to when younger Siegfried sat outside the hospital where he was being treated and watched as a man who had lost both legs in the war, was pushed outside in a wheelchair for some fresh air. As the day grows darker and the temperature drops, we hear the words of a poem Wilfred Owen wrote and gave to Siegfried, titled, “Disabled.” As Siegfried, Jack Lowden’s voice reads out the poem as we watch Siegfried watch this man while he waits for a nurse to come back and bring him inside. Lowden’s performance is captivating, based on his facial expressions alone. The older Siegfried never truly finds salvation. He ends up alone, haunted by his past, and feeling guilty about his survival. The younger Sassoon watches the injured soldier and tries (and fails) to hold back tears. Siegfried is completely devastated and so in turn are we.
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
* * * * *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don't they come
And put him into bed? Why don't they come?
Excerpt from “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro