Jack Lowden in Benediction (2022)
The biopic sub-genre has seen plenty of films follow a similar trajectory: one that lands on the greatest hits of a person’s life and feels like a Wikipedia page adaptation in chronological order. With the ‘no stone unturned’ approach, a lot of material is crammed into a few hours of screen time out of obligation. As a consequence, you lose the intrigue of what makes a subject interesting to explore in the first place. For writer-director Terence Davies, his new film Benediction shines through an observational portrait of 20th century English poet and solider Siegfried Sassoon. The film is about Sassoon’s life in fragments, as he is in perpetual search for peace of mind over time. As a solider who lived through the first World War, his vulnerability was raw. As a gay man who expressed his sexuality at a time when it was dangerous to do so, his relationships under the pressure of societal expectations pushed him further from his own truth. Through narrative past and present, Davies makes such keen observations of Sassoon’s internal battle as someone drowning in regret while cushioned by privilege. With a sharp screenplay and non-linear direction, Benediction makes impact as a haunting story of a redemption that never comes.
In the best performance of his career, Jack Lowden plays war poet Siegfried Sassoon, whose poetry is a vivid reflection of his internal conflict. The film introduces him protesting a war of aggression, and the political eras against which men are being sacrificed. Having survived the war, he finds himself in a different dilemma. One that calls into question his morals, his responsibilities, everything he once believed in. From the way Sassoon carries himself, you can tell this character has crossed the bridge from passive resistance to active salvation. His engine of change is powered by the way he challenges the war, no longer willing to be part of suffering to unjust ends. In challenging his beliefs, he finds himself committed to an Edinburgh mental hospital for “questioning his superiors and his own duties as a captain”. A nervous breakdown, others call it. The film drives Sassoon to an endless crossroad; he is in constant search for truth and resolution, looking everywhere except the one place he ought to, within himself.
From Sassoon’s hospital time in Edinburgh, to his affluent interactions with members of high society, to the later stages of his married life, Benediction is a story driven by memory. The film explores the war poet’s life in the way he seemed to have left it: unresolved. While fragmented in structure, Davies has a measured eye. His attention to detail, both as a director and writer, is far too strong for the story to ever lose focus. Benediction takes shape with the use of poetry, which features as narration of Sassoon’s experiences from time to time. These moments recall how Davies shows a deep understanding of his subject. Through writing, Sassoon was able to articulate emotion that could not be explained outside of poetic expression. Davies honors the sentiment by choosing to convey pieces of Sassoon’s life as if they were dreamt up from reading the poet’s words.
The power of one’s mind is captured so beautifully, and tragically, throughout this film. Because of Sassoon’s internal conflict and constant search for contentment in life, the memories that flood in from his past experiences take on a haunting quality. With memory comes the painful regret of his destructive relationships; after befriending and losing fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), Sassoon falls for the wrong men over and over again; we see some who are cruel and indifferent towards him. Ultimately, his experiences lead him down a path later in life where he struggles to face all his regrets. The film includes elegantly shot transition scenes between young characters and older versions of themselves. Peter Capaldi plays the older version of Sassoon; while not given nearly as much material to chew on in comparison to Lowden, Capaldi brings a visible exhaustion that speaks to the life of someone who got lost along the way of finding himself. The later stages of Sassoon’s life show how, following years of unfulfilling relationships, he manages to carry on in a new life unrecognizable from the one he once led. The way Sassoon grapples with his decisions can’t be explained by just one reason. Getting from one point to another in life is a collection of tiny moments, many of which seem inconsequential, but for a filmmaker like Davies are the stuff of plentiful significance.
Working magic with Davies is Jack Lowden, who gives what is easily a career-best performance as Sassoon. His blend of sensitivity and rigorous detail is Davies’ match made in heaven. Lowden dives deep into an intriguing portrait of a character in the thick of grief and loneliness. His performance is layered, witty, and full of the command needed for this character to feel alive. Often times period films can generate and encourage performances that exist in the confines of a regimented structure. But with themes of morality and humanity on the table of discussion, Benediction gives Lowden the material to find something fresh to say through the vessel of such a mysterious subject. He consumes his lines with passionate spirit and delivers with a punch. Davies’ screenplay is full of biting dialogue, quick-witted and at times funnier than expected.
As the dialogue so carefully crafted in Benediction shows, the story cuts through pleasantries with an unapologetic straightforwardness. What appears to be an old fashioned war film very quickly becomes a reminiscent study of Sassoon’s life. The film has the look of a classic period piece, from Nicola Daley’s elegant cinematography to Annie Symons’ polished costume design. But Davies makes a point not to forget what lies outside the privileged walls of Sassoon’s surroundings. He juxtaposes wealthy and distinguished settings with grim 1920s footage from the First World War. It’s a reminder that while Sassoon and the circles he ran in were somewhat protected from a life of artistic influence, the lower class of the world were facing imminent repercussions.
The story of Benediction is a fascinating exploration not just of Siegfried Sassoon, but also the climate in which he lived. Davies mediates on the emotional aftermath of war and how it alters the rest of a person’s life. As well, the pressures around a gay man expressing his sexuality at a time when doing so could have resulted in jail time. Davies’ storytelling portrays Siegfried Sassoon like a collection of memories; ranging from poetic and funny, to lonely and tragic. There’s an unrelenting tang of regret in the character’s eyes that both Lowden and Capaldi capture well at different periods of the man’s life. Not much time is spent on articulating what Sassoon is thinking at any given moment, but by the end of Benediction, it is clear just how much sadness he carried across a turbulent lifetime. The film builds to a final scene that will certainly be hard to shake from one’s memory.
Benediction is now playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
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