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Film review: ‘Benediction’ brings to life the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon

Jack Lowden plays the poet as a dashing, rebellious young man

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British director Terence Davies is considered to be legendary by some film critics, but he’s probably the least-known legend in movie history.

His latest, “Benediction,” looks at the poetry and life of Siegfried Sassoon, one of the most famous World War I writers who lashed out at battlefield atrocities. A previous Davies film, 2016’s “A Quiet Passion,” starred Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson and dealt with her anguish.

But “Benediction” is about more than anguish. It mixes in black-and-white war footage with Sassoon’s verses and other anti-war writings, pairing the beauty of poetry with real-life horrors. And that’s why “Benediction” is one of Davies’ best works.

For those unfamiliar with Sassoon, a little background is necessary. He was a decorated soldier in World War I and already a rather famous poet when he stunned military leaders with his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, which protested what he considered the unnecessary continuation of combat.

He risked being put in prison, but instead, a military tribunal sent him off to a military hospital, Craiglockhart, where he met another budding poet and soldier, Wilfred Owen, (in the film played by Matthew Tennyson). The two became close friends, but Owen was eventually sent back to the war and died on the battlefield. (Interestingly, Owen is considered to be a better poet than Sassoon, although the movie shows him to be somewhat in thrall to Sassoon.)



In “Benediction,” Jack Lowden plays the young Sassoon, who has various love affairs with a series of men, including the composer Ivor Norvello (Jeremy Irvine), the noted gay dilettante Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and a friendly relationship with Oscar Wilde’s pal Robbie Ross (Russell Beale). In the latter part of the movie, Peter Capaldi plays Sassoon, who has retreated into Catholicism and entered into a marriage with Hester Gatty, played by Kate Phillips as a young woman and Gemma Jones in later years.

It’s clear that the marriage is one of convenience rather than passion, and Sassoon tells Gatty early on that he has never had an affair with anyone but men. Still, she accepts his proposal, and they end up having a son George (Richard Goulding).

Much of the movie is devoted to young Sassoon’s affairs. They don’t go well, but they do feature lots of barbs and quips. And Lowden is a dashing actor who has made his name on the British stage and, in particular, as Nikolai Rostov in the six-hour BBC miniseries “War and Peace.”

Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon’s manuscript of the satirical poem ‘The General’, written on stationery from the Reform Club in London and dated May 1917. Ransom Center Collections, University of Texas

But the real appeal in “Benediction” is the poetry and its pairing with World War I archival footage. Such pairings occur throughout “Benediction,” and without them, the movie would be much less.

For those of you more interested in Sassoon’s poetry, it should be noted thatthe Ransom Center at the University of Texas has some of his archives.

And if you’re interested in more about the life of Davies, then you might want to check out 1983’s “The Terence Davies Trilogy,” made up of autobiographical short films that document his Catholic upbringing and homosexuality.

“Benediction” is playing in Austin at the Regal Arbor, the Violet Crown and the Hill Country Galleria 14.

 


Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

1 COMMENT

  1. This sounds great. And if Charles Ealy likes it, I’m seeing it. I read Sassoon, Owen and others as part of my war-induced PTSD recovery, and I also give a lot of credit to the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy of novels by Pat Barker — some of the most wonderful writing we have, regardless of genre.

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