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Benediction - Film Review

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by Jon Cocks (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer living in the Adelaide Hills.
If you loved 'Atonement' you will love this more
Benediction, a movie masterpiece
Jack Lowden as war poet and conscietious objector Siegfried Sassoon

Benediction, celebrated writer-director Terence Davies's studied take on the life and times of celebrated war poet Siegfried Sassoon is a masterpiece. Jack Lowden plays Sassoon in his prime with nuanced mastery and Peter Capaldi follows up magisterially with all the intensity of an artist the world leaves behind in his lonely, isolated later years. Lowden described the script as the most complex he has encountered, but also as a perfect document. It demanded a bravura performance from the actor and Lowden delivered on every level: the artist, the man of principle, the jilted (gay) lover, the loyal friend, the urbane society celebrity, the soldier, and the man who has lost his way and does not know where to find it.

Sassoon, the concientious objector
Not expecting much sympathy from the tribunal interviewing him for his wilful disobedience of orders.

Sassoon at thirty was a war hero and a closet gay in an era when homosexuality was a crime. His literary reputation was made at the same as he was coming to terms with his homosexuality. After witnessing the slaughter of the Somme and nightmare of Arras he cemented his notoriety with the British establishment when he wrote a letter to his commanding officer in which he announced his ' wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.' The authorities were loath to court-marshal a celebrity and war hero with a Military Cross, so they sent him to Craiglockhart, a war hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially diagnosed with 'shell shock.' It was there he met fellow war poet Wilfred Owen (a stammering Matthew Tennyson), whose own genius inspired him to write more war poetry.

In Roman Catholicism, to which Sassoon turned in his later years seeking peace, a Benediction is a blessing, an invocation that God might smile down and ease the burden of care. The film's title encapsulates Sassoon's life journey as one in which he ultimately sought a release from the hell that was war in France and Flanders, the national notoriety of conscientious objection and the personal pain accrued in his complicated private life with its multiple homosexual attachments. His was a descent from fame and adulation into an elderly non-entity, an angry young firebrand prepared to face a firing squad for his anti-war convictions devolving into a haunted shadow of his former self as redemption will not come from within.

Ambitiously, Davies adopts the didactic approach to alienate audience emotion, using the poet's words a narration and a multimedia approach to narrative. His non-linear filmic approach might have descended into something of a docudrama on Sassoon's life with a less assured hand. Instead, the narrative force never fades as he shows us the full emotional canvas of the protagonist's journey in long shots with minimal dialogue, uncomfortable exchanges with lovers and potential lovers and intimate moments with little left to the imagination.

We see Sassoon symbolically discarding the Military Cross he won for bravery under fire and snippets of disfigured soldiers in hospitals that echo with blood-curdling screams and desolate weeping grief at what war has done to them. The use of original black and white World War One footage, overlaid with Lowden in voice-over reading selections of Sassoon's war poetry show a world of extremes where humanity is tested and yet confirms that our divine spark is contained within our humanity. To deny it is to deny life itself, as Sassoon's lonely later years so starkly represent.

high society, post-war London
Hester with Stephen Tennant

The mature Sassoon appears for the first time fairly early in its narrative, sitting in a church, exploring the possibility that surrendering his soul to Christ might help him find benediction. It comes not long after the film's inciting moment, in which the thirty-year-old Sassoon confronts a military panel to confirm his pacifism and opposition to war. The complexities of Sassoon's life evolve on-screen as Davies presents the audience with richly visual key moments in Sassoon's evolution, a wartime world of khaki and dinner dress against the damp grey, brown and green of London and the Home counties.

Ivor Novello
Matinee idol and narcissist

Richly drawn supporting characters enhance the narrative further. Sassoon's affair with the magnificently narcissistic and self-obsessed matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) brings passion and humiliation in equal measures.

Sassoon's mother
Grieving Hamo's death at Gallipoli

Sassoon's artist mother (Geraldine James) agonises in a finely-drawn cameo over his life choices and the death of Hamo, his younger brother, while Sassoon's publisher Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) provides wry commentary on society of the day.

Sassoon with Hester
He contemplates being 'normal'

Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth) is Novello's discarded lover. Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) is memorably sulky and petulant as the lover Sassoon himself discards, before he attempts being 'normal' and takes up with a charming Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), who observes with unconscious irony after dancing the Charleston with Sassoon: 'I think everyone should be gay, don't you think?' His reply: 'Only in the wider sense' belies the fantasy sequence in which, while dancing with Hester, he fantasises a succession of his gay lovers as his partner.

Benediction opens in cinemas on June 9. In a cinematic universe full of very fast warplanes and very scary dinosaurs, where big is bigger and loud is louder, Benediction is a blessing, not to be taken lightly, but to be savoured for its dedication to truth and meaning in life.

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Why? It is a filmic masterpiece
Where: Cinemas everywhere
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by Jen on 21/05/2022
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