Benediction – Film Review
by Frank L.
Director – Terence Davies
Writer – Terence Davies
Stars – Tom Blyth, Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi
Siegfried Sassoon was born in 1886. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was tried and convicted for gross indecency with men and the publicity surrounding his trial ensured a sexual life for a homosexual man was a life fraught with danger and subterfuge. Sassoon lived the life of a young gentleman, was a published poet and had already joined the British Army when war broke out on 4th August 1914. His younger brother was killed at Gallipoli and notwithstanding that Sassoon was decorated for gallantry, his poetry became increasingly critical of the war. As a result, he faced a court-martial, the end result of which was that he was sent to a military mental hospital. There, he had the good fortune to meet Wilfred Owen but it was not to be as Owen was to die at the very end of the war.
The director of this film, Terence Davies was born in 1945 in Liverpool, the youngest of ten children in a Roman Catholic family. It was a time the British establishment was hell-bent to save its young men from sodomy, not that dissimilar to what Sassoon had endured fifty years earlier. However, Davies has stated publically that he hated being gay. Yet he has now made a biopic about Sassoon whose sexuality was complex and indeed encompassed “gay” even if that term was not in use when Sassoon was in his prime.
Davies in a series of tableaux explains the difficulties with the army top brass that young Sassoon (Jack Lowden) faced during the war as a dissident war poet, the kindred spirit he found in the chief medical officer (Julian Sands) at the mental hospital and the deep sense of unity he had with Owen (Matthew Tennyson). He intersperses these scenes with gruelling, archive footage from the trenches. It is disturbing. He, also, in the high life of the twenties depicts Sassoon moving with the glamorous Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and the rich Christopher Tennant (Calam Lynch) in a flamboyant but unappealing world. These tableaux are each a masterpiece, not least the ballet-like swim conducted in a pool by Owen and Sassoon. Davies allows you to peer into a world which is otherwise not permitted to outsiders.
We then see Sassoon in middle age, where he marries Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips) and appears happy in a calmer ambience. However, Davies then using modern computer techniques transforms Sassoon from the youthful Jack Lowden to the sixty-something Peter Capaldi. It is seamlessly done but this last part of the film with Sassoon aged and crotchety, an elderly wife (Gemma Jones) and a grown-up son (Richard Goulding) reflects a domestic world of a very different hue to that which had been Sassoon’s world during the war and the twenties. Davies balances this substantial difference deftly. It is almost as if Sassoon had undergone a biblical conversion which to an extent he had as he had become a Roman Catholic.
Davies has found in Sassoon a man whose life careered across very different terrains. These elements are in many instances conventional but also disparate: brother, son, poet, soldier, hero, dissenter, queer, lover, married man, father, curmudgeon and convert. Davies manages to hold this challenging story together even if it is a world without much tenderness and where the destruction of the first world war casts a long shadow on those who survived.
Sassoon is a challenging character about which to make a biopic. He is often remote and distant. He was not an easy husband or father. Yet in the end, Davies creates a man who is likeable enough and often admirable, who does not give up and who, even if prickly and awkward, is still at least trying in old age. Davies has created a film worth grappling with more than once.