Runtime: 137 minutes
Director/Writer: Terence Davies
Actors: Peter Capaldi, Gemma Jones, Jack Lowden, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Ben Daniels, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips
By Joan Amenn
“Sneak home and pray you’ll never know,
The hell where youth and laughter go.”
– “Suicide in the Trenches,” Siegfried Sassoon
Terence Davies wrote and directed “Benediction” (2021) not just as a homage to the poet and author Siegfried Sassoon, but to all those who served in WW1 and, unlike him, did not return home. The term benediction refers to a prayer for God’s blessing and guidance but it is not clear who in the film is asking for this and from whom they are asking it. Sassoon comes to religious faith late in life but he seems to have been longing for absolution from his fallen war comrades long before he sought forgiveness from the Divine.
Jack Lowden plays Sassoon as a man consumed by guilt, and not just for surviving the horror that took so many of his countrymen. He was also homosexual at a time when that was a punishable offense in the United Kingdom. In some scenes, Lowden resembles a young Paul Henreid with his quiet, soft-spoken charisma. His good looks, quick wit and sincere convictions make Sassoon sympathetic and very likable. When he protests the continuing slaughter of his fellow soldiers by refusing to return to active service, he is assigned to a mental hospital rather than face court-martial. It is there that he meets Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) who evolves into a poet under his mentorship.
While the young Sassoon mingled with some of the more famous figures of his time such as Lady Ottoline Morrell (Suzanne Bertish), the patroness of writers and artists alike, the suffering of his wartime experiences never seem to have left his thoughts. He is haunted, and in a way, he is hunted by a society that would condemn him for his sexuality if it were to ever become public.
This all takes a toll over the years and an older Sassoon, played by Peter Capaldi, is seen as a bitter, sometimes abusive, recluse who still seeks for “peace of mind.” Archival war footage from the records of the British Museum and others intersect the autobiographical drama of the film, giving a context to the inner churning of Sassoon’s mind. His own poems are read over scenes to great effect as they highlight the senseless slaughter of so many young lives during the war. It is an incredibly moving splicing of the visual and auditory with a score that is almost Wagnerian in its power.
“Benediction” is not as epic as “1917” (2019) but it is in many ways still a war film. The spoken words of Sassoon’s poetry become a benediction over the fallen just like the simple folksong at the end of “1917” becomes a communal prayer for soldiers facing eminent death. “Benediction” suggests there are some traumas that never truly heal, even if they do inspire great art.