For a hot second in the early 20th century, Siegfried Sassoon was the most revered poet in England. Critics and tastemakers adored his poems about World War I, thinking they exquisitely depicted the horrors of trench warfare. But unlike his contemporary Wilfred Owen, who died before the war ended, Sassoon survived. Life continued even after millions of young men perished in Europe, and Sassoon soon found himself out of fashion, in a frivolous period defined by dancing, cocktail parties, and musical theater.
Benediction, the new biographical drama written and directed by Terence Davies, imagines what effect that swing had on Sassoon. It has little interest in his creative process, and eschews the Great Man cliches we typically see in biopics. Instead, Davies’ navigates Sassoon’s story by remaining curious about what he thinks, whether it’s the war, his lovers, or his career. Following his intellectual life is a storytelling masterstroke, a shrewd way to make us curious to know what feelings inform his thoughts, so when we finally see what’s under that steely exterior, the result is devastating.
Jack Lowden plays Sassoon. Davies never re-creates dramatic episodes from the poet’s time on the battlefield, instead he opts for something more contemplative: Over archival footage and photographs, we hear Lowden recite Sassoon’s poetry. It is more somber than horrifying, so it is a slight shock when Sassoon stands before superior officers, forcefully arguing he would face execution rather than fight any longer. Handsome and overly scrupulous, Sassoon is the sort of angry young man who would rather take the moral high ground than compromise his values, which he tends to like a garden.
The British Army sidesteps the public trial Sassoon craves, deciding he’s mentally unwell for service, and sends him to Edinburgh, Scotland, to convalesce. This is where Benediction relaxes a little, and begins an episodic look at Sassoon’s pivotal relationships. His doctor (Ben Daniels) is smart and droll, so Sassoon lets his guard down. Both men are gay, discreetly coming out to each other, then asking for more discretion immediately afterward. Davies’ dialogue is rich with meaning and allusion, and the simple shot/reverse shot of these dialogue scenes unfold like a witty sparring match—some more severe than others.
Davies jumps between different periods in Sassoon’s life (including episodes where Peter Capaldi plays him as an older man), and there are no title cards or timestamps to help us follow Sassoon’s timeline. Davies can be downright demanding of your familiarity with literature and history, introducing major figures from the period, such as the composer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and “bright young thing” Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch and later, Anton Lesser) and expecting you to have some sense of who they are (other than Sassoon’s lovers). Such an approach could be alienating, except the actors deftly define their roles into recognizable archetypes. More importantly, we see them all through Sassoon, whose affection for them curdles into resentment. We do not see it yet, but the war is the subtext for each lover’s quarrel, as if it’s a cloud that Sassoon cannot escape.
There was no word for PTSD in those days, and while Sassoon may have been affected by it, the trauma does not define him in Davies’ telling. It does not wholly define Benediction, either, since parts of the film can be downright hilarious. In the aftermath of war through advanced age, Sassoon nurses his sense of superiority. He frequently talks about the purity of artistic expression, and there are subplots where we watch him suffer through art he considers vulgar. At one point later in life, someone puts on a pop record, and Capaldi screams in disgust, demanding it be turned off. Sassoon’s snobbery is a source of humor, although that eccentricity also comes from a place of heartbreak. It is lonely to have no one with whom you can share your sensibility, or can understand your experience.
The film argues Sassoon’s greatest relationship was with Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson, the great-great-great-grandson of England’s Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson). They met in Edinburgh, as the war raged on, and connected on a level that Sassoon tries to find elsewhere, always failing. Sassoon is wistful after Owen dies while serving, a feeling that becomes more painful when it can never be re-created. Davies suggests Sassoon’s eventual marriage to Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips) is a kind of romantic defeat. Lowden and Capaldi ably capture the contradiction and depth of feeling that Sassoon preferred to nurse internally (a decision that made him more of a curmudgeon in advanced age). If Davies opts for a “warts and all” approach, his film is also a damning critique of the society where Sassoon found himself, one that made no room for who he really was.
Benediction is a good film for most of its runtime—carefully observed, sharply acted—its final scene makes it a great one. After Capaldi sits on a park bench with decades of disappointment weighing on his shoulders, Davies cuts back to Lowden on a similar bench while we hear him recite Owen’s poem “Disabled” in voice-over. After more than two hours of hiding his emotion, Lowden’s poignant nonverbal acting reveals Sassoon’s anguish, pain, and torment from the war. This moment of release was not cathartic for him, and was something the poet kept bottled up right until his death, an insight that clicks the whole film into focus. Most biopics about artists tell you what their work meant, whereas Benediction has the patience and empathy to make you almost feel it.
Benediction opens in area theaters on June 3.