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Film review: Benediction

27 May 2022

Stephen Brown reviews a biopic about the poet Siegfried Sassoon

Peter Capaldi as the older Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction

Peter Capaldi as the older Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction

BENEDICTION (Cert. 12A) is another masterful film from Terence Davies. As with his consideration of Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (Arts, 7 April 2017), he focuses on a writer. This time it is Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967).

Despite his Military Cross, the man cries out against the continuing senselessness of First World War carnage, in which “hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!” Sassoon knows that his protests may condemn him as a traitor, but seethes that influential friends save his life.

Deemed mentally unfit, he is sent to a military hospital. There, young Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is sympathetically treated by Dr Rivers (Ben Daniels). These encounters figure among the finest scenes, as the men come to trust enough for them to reveal their homosexual orientation. It is not something that the patient feels able to give into as he yearns for ultimate meaning. Rivers suggests that he understands their meetings “as a cleansing of the soul”.

A bond forms with a fellow patient, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). They are seen practising a tango by Benjamin Woodgates, “If Thou Let This Man Go”. This is what the crowd yells at Pilate (John 19.12). This composer of several pieces of sacred music tells me that it is poignantly linked to Sassoon’s realisation that Owen would shortly be sent back to the Front. Much that follows in Benediction is Sassoon’s heartbreakingly elusive search for some kind of redemption.

In the aftermath of war, he is the doyen of countless soirées. At one, he recites his poem “When I’m among a blaze of lights With tawdry music and cigars”, which concludes that it turns his living heart to stone. Most people live for the moment, he is told. “You live for eternity.” He strives to find it in loving affairs with other men, including Ivor Novello, wickedly played by Jeremy Irvine with an unbearably savage wit.

Despondent after several failed relationships, Sassoon comes to believe that the love of a good woman could cure him. His proposal to the charming Hester (Sarah Phillips) is inflected with religious language. “All my life has felt on the edge of catastrophe. . . You must redeem my former life.”

It is hard to connect the older Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) with what has gone before. Marriage hasn’t brought the blessings of eternal life. Company in general conflicts with his need for solitude. In desperation, becomes a Roman Catholic. “Why?” asks his perplexed son George. “Something permanent, unchanging,” comes the reply, unaware that Vatican II is in the offing.

After this film full of atmosphere, wit, and emotional depth, one is left pondering its ironic title. “Benediction” may be a misnomer. Davies, a former cradle Catholic, never really explains what would constitute such a state of grace, if it existed — unless, perhaps, blessed assurance comes in seeking rather than finding God. Yet it’s a film in which music, cinematography, and great storytelling resound with transcendence.

In the end, for all his agonised searching, it is the Way (as Dag Hammarskjöld would have said) that finds Siegfried, not the reverse. Benediction heartily, if unwittingly, is an ecstatic experience.

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