CAST: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels, Calam Lynch, Anton Lesser, Tom Blyth, Matthew Tennyson, Geraldine James, Richard Goulding, Lia Williams, Suzanne Bertish, Julian Sands, Jude Akuwudike, Giovanna Ria
RUNNING TIME: 137 mins
BASICALLY…: In post-WW1 London, poet and former soldier Siegfried Sassoon (Lowden) struggles with his sexuality…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Terence Davies is one of those filmmaking veterans who you can certainly respect for his long body of work that spans nearly fifty years, but can never quite get into his actual films. Benediction is now the third movie of his I have seen, following 2015’s Sunset Song, and his Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion (and yes, I know he’s made a lot of other movies, which I simply haven’t yet gotten around to), and from what I remember about those films as well as having now seen this one, Davies appears to be the kind of auteur that revels in stoic intimacy, fragmented and loosely connected storytelling, and paragraphs upon paragraphs of dry, occasionally monotonous dialogue that often doesn’t tell us much about the characters we’re supposed to be watching on the screen.
Of the three Davies movies I have seen, Benediction is probably the most complete product, but it’s still a difficult film to try and absorb, for not only does it struggle to enliven interest in its central historical figure, but by the end you know just as little about them as you probably did going in.
The film revolves around renowned poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), whose anti-war scripture and subsequent refusal to continue serving in the First World War make him both a pariah in the British Army, who sends him to a mental hospital in response to his insubordination, and a sought-after figure in 1920s upper-class society. Throughout, Sassoon struggles to cope with his overwhelming feelings of guilt and regret for the role he played in what he sees as a jingoistic war, and with his sexuality as he becomes romantically involved with numerous male socialites, including caddish entertainer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and egotistic Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch, recently seen in the second season of Bridgerton), which end disastrously. Eventually, an older Sassoon (now played by Peter Capaldi) lives a life of stubborn solitude, but still haunted by the troubles of his past.
While it’s not quite as insufferably boring as Davies’ previous feature A Quiet Passion (more things actually happen in this film), Benediction can often be a chore to sit through. The fragmented storytelling, which shifts from one moment to another without a wholly solid structure, leaves little room for sustainable character development that allows us to understand who most of these people are. A character will come in, state their name, and then the scene will fade to some time later when we are supposed to accept that said character has now become a known figure to the protagonist, even though we still don’t know anything about them other than what they’re called. Others will come in and deliver exposition on some important events that have unceremoniously happened off-camera, as though they didn’t have enough in the budget to actually film any of it. Too little does the film actually stop to give the audience a reason to sympathise with these people, including Sassoon himself who, despite being the central figure, is given very little depth as a character and is not made interesting enough to those who may not have even heard of the real person before seeing the film.
This is despite the fact that Jack Lowden, as the younger Siegfried Sassoon, is quite good in the part; he delivers the kind of assured and emotional lead performance that belongs in a much stronger biopic, one that focuses more on who the guy actually is rather than being a dour mood piece inspired by Sassoon’s bleak poetry (which is often used here over old war footage). If the script gives him very little to substantially work with, Lowden manages to elevate the material as much as he can with a turn that quietly captures the melancholy and passion of Sassoon’s writing. Peter Capaldi, though on-screen far less than his younger counterpart, also shines in a much different role than we’re used to seeing the actor, though often it can be confusing to point how both performers are supposed to be playing the same person when they don’t look all that alike.
Ultimately, like the other Terence Davies movies I’ve seen, the good intentions of Benediction are countered by a stoicism that prevents emotional investment beyond mere mood, not giving a strong enough reason as to why this story, and its historical figures, should matter to audiences. Perhaps the director is better at establishing tone than he is structural storytelling, which can work as long as there’s something else for the viewer to latch onto, but here the options are fleeting, making for a paradoxically emotional but also hollow experience.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Benediction has good intentions, and a strong lead turn by Jack Lowden as revered poet Siegfried Sassoon, but writer-director Terence Davies’ structured storytelling leaves little room for emotional engagement with story and characters, making it a difficult viewing experience for anyone who isn’t already familiar with the poet’s work.