Deborah Ross

Quietly devastating: Benediction reviewed

The film does not show Siegfried Sassoon's creative process, which is wise

Quietly devastating: Benediction reviewed
Once a rising star, it is probably fair to say he has fully risen: Jack Lowden as Siegfried Sassoon
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12A, Nationwide

Terence Davies’s Benediction is a biopic of the first world war poet Siegfried Sassoon told with great feeling and tenderness. The result is quietly powerful, quietly devastating and, happily, is not afflicted by the usual clichés that afflict this genre. Sassoon never, for example, crumples what he’s just written and throws it across the room. For this we must be grateful, and are.

The film juggles two timelines, with the young Siegfried played by Jack Lowden – once a rising star, it is probably now fair to say he has fully risen; he is wonderful here – and the old Siegfried played by Peter Capaldi. We only ever encounter the poems in voiceover, and the story opens in 1914 with ‘Concert Interpretation’ – Lowden reads beautifully – as Britain stands on the brink of war yet is still innocent (‘...God was in His heaven and there were sausages for breakfast’). Sassoon, when we first meet him, is being fitted for a uniform at a military tailor along with his younger brother, who will never return (Gallipoli). Siegfried would go on to win the Military Cross but his denunciation of the horrors of the war, both in his poetry and otherwise – ‘the soul of the world has died’ – would land him in a psychiatric hospital. After that he led a surprisingly openly gay life amid the bright young things in 1920s London and had some awful, destructive boyfriends – Ivor Novello, so spiteful – before marrying a woman (poor Hester) and converting to Catholicism at the very end.

This covers all of the above, in an episodic way, and deals with Davies’s usual preoccupations: sexuality, class, faith and the past, not as a foreign country, but always flooding the present. Woven throughout is archive footage of the war that is unsparing – dead men, dead horses, war-torn landscapes – but can also be strangely beautiful. A snowy no-man’s land with ‘Silent Night’ playing over the top, first in German and then dissolving into English, for example. The narrative has unexpected twists. Sassoon’s psychiatrist at the hospital, played by Ben Daniels, is deeply compassionate and insightful and I don’t know why I expected otherwise but I did. (I may have seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest too many times.) It is heartbreaking at certain junctures. In the hospital Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, a fellow patient, as yet unpublished. There’s a kind of love affair, never consummated, that’s handled with such restrained emotion you will almost certainly weep. Owen was sent back to the front and, of course, never returned. Neither did Rupert Brooke. Sassoon was the only war poet to survive. He was also the first to read Owen’s ‘Disabled’ – ‘magnificent…it pierces the heart,’ he declares – and that poem will return later, to pierce your heart all over again.

The overall tone is melancholic, as dictated by Lowden’s terrific performance as a man searching for something he will never find because he doesn’t know what it is. But it is also wonderfully funny in places. Lia Williams’s Edith Sitwell is fabulously bonkers as well as fabulously malicious. Novello, she says, ‘writes at the cheaper end of poetry’.

There are questions that go unanswered. Why was Sassoon attracted to such cruel men? (Not just Novello but also socialite Stephen Tennant.) Why is his Jewishness never mentioned? Also, while the young Sassoon is gentle and sensitive the old one is bitter and nasty, and there is never any sense of how we got from there to here.

The film does not show the creative process, which is wise, given poetry is so interior, but as a result the man and the work seem distant. It’s as though they know each other, but not intimately. On the other hand it means we never have to see him hit by inspiration mid-dinner, then racing to his room to scribble. And for that we must be thankful too.