“Benediction” Fails to Win Our Approval.


“Benediction”, writer/director Terence Davies’ biographical drama film about the life of the gay English poet Siegfried Sassoon feels dead, except for the poetry.


1917 Sassoon Takes a Stand Against The War.

Sassoon was born in1886 to a Jewish father and an Anglo-Catholic mother. His mother named him Siegfried, ironically, because of her love of Wagner’s operas. He fought on the Western Front in WWI exhibiting exceptional bravery. However, in 1917, having seen months of horror, Sassoon decided to make a stand against the conduct of the war. Rather than court-martial him, the Under-Secretary of War decided that he was unfit for service. He was, therefore, sent to a psychiatric hospital outside of Edinburgh where he was officially treated for “shell-shock”.

It is here that Davies’ film begins. Jack Lowden plays Sassoon from his thirties into his forties (Peter Capaldi, following an impressive CGI-morph, plays the older Sassoon as an old grouch who converts to Catholicism) with a surfeit of subtlety blending into boredom. Davies’ dialogue is irritatingly precious and, as we move in the rarefied echelons of (relatively) protected gay upper-class British society (homosexuality being illegal in England until 1967, the year of Sassoon’s death) the scenes begin to resemble a series of tableaux vivants with Lowden’s Sassoon disappearing into the background.

Davies has always been a bit of a snob and a bit of a name-dropper (to his credit, he makes light of this in his historical documentary of his hometown of Liverpool in “Of Time and the City”) but the sheer number of bright young things and other notable personalities who are trotted out for an appearance, or just simply referred to in the first half of “Benediction”, becomes suffocating.


The Singer and Songwriter Ivor Novello Was One of Sassoon’s Lovers

Sassoon’s sexuality is explored in detail but in a clinically detached and sterile fashion. There is a nice scene at the beginning when Sassoon and his psychiatrist (Ben Daniels) come out to one another simultaneously but it seems anachronistic. Decades ahead of its time. We get a small reprieve when Sassoon starts dating the singer Ivor Novello. Novello was a narcissist par excellence and Jeremy Irvine, exuding arrogance and conceit, seems to be having fun playing him (he is introduced singing his ear-piercing ditty “And Her Mother Came, Too” the same song that Jeremy Northam’s Novello sang in Robert Altman’s 2001 film “Gosford Park” to the tune of Maggie Smith’s ” Don’t, Don’t, Don’t …Please Don’t Encourage Him. He’ll Just Go On and On and On.”). However, we feel no connection whatsoever between the great poet and the famous singer and songwriter. They could be interacting on two different planets. The same applies to Sassoon’s other gay lover Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch CGI-morphing into Anton Lesser). Maybe that’s Davies’ point? In fact, the air of inertness that haunts the film is similar to that of “The Terence Davies Trilogy” from the early eighties. A world of emptiness and failure.


Only the Poetry of Sassoon and His Friend and Probable Lover Wilfred Owen Comes Alive.

Only with Sassoon’s poetry does the film come alive. It strikes through the film’s artifice straight to the heart. This is doubly so of Sassoon’s younger friend and probable lover Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) who we meet briefly at the hospital in Edinburgh. Owen, who was killed in the last few days before the armistice, is now recognized as the better poet. In fact, the best moment of the film, is a reading of one of Owen’s masterworks “Disabled”. There is real emotion here. If only Davies could have borrowed some of it for his film.


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