Veteran UK director Terence Davies’ first feature since 2016 is an elegant and moving biopic of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Benediction is an anti-war film in the sense that we never see the conflict, yet its traumas echo throughout the life of its protagonist.
Amidst the horrors of the Great War, army lieutenant and poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) petitions to end the bloodshed, claiming that its prosecutors are needlessly prolonging the war. Instead of being publicly court martialled, Siegfried finds himself quietly confined to a hospital for “nervous debility”, meeting fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). As the film alternately flashes forward to an elderly, embittered Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) and his youthful counterpart surviving the war and moving through the 1920s and 30s, a moving and elegant portrait of life emerges that transcends the artifice of a standard biopic.
In its early scenes, the film’s cinematography has a televisual, almost stagey quality, all unflashy master shots and inserts that prioritises the dialogue, intercut frequently with sequences of archival footage as Sassoon sardonically recites his and Owen’s poetry. There’s a somewhat staid quality to it, but as the film settles into its 137-minute running time that staidness transforms into steadiness. Indeed, its quiet visuals are at the heart of Benediction’s sense of dignity and remembrance. Its language is not the passionate rage of Sassoon’s youth, but rather of the quiet, profoundly sad reflections of his later years.
There’s something of Stephen Poliakoff in the way that it find the profound in unfussy quiet, but also of Fassbinder, particularly Berlin Alexanderplatz, his interwar epic that spanned decades. Siegfried’s affair with the famed entertainer Ivor Novello (a deliciously cruel Jeremy Irvine) forms the film’s middle portion, but as Capaldi gradually overtakes Lowden in the third act as the older Siegfried, we come to realise that what we have been watching is not the young man of the past, but rather the memories of the old.
Benediction is a subtle but fierce indictment of war and waste, whose only footage of the war is archival. Davies resists the temptation to aestheticise the war by fictionalising it; to have recreated the Somme or the trenches would risk making it exciting. His film is not singularly about the First World War in the way that 1917 or Saul Dibb’s 2017 adaptation of Journey’s End are, while its decades-long scope softens the immediate horror of the war. Instead, it is a study of trauma echoes across a lifetime, of the way that war freezes time for those caught in it. Where Sassoon and Owen were enraged by the powerful old men who robbed the young for their own glory, so too is Benediction an ironic testament to that theft, a picture of youth at once stolen and arrested in place. Its final moments are a bitter riposte to the “smug-faced crowds with kindling eye” that twist remembrance into self-serving lies.