How does one determine ones own worth? This is one of the questions at the heart of Benediction, Terrance Davies new biopic of English poet Sigfried Sassoon. Sassoon lived through the first world war, and as a commissioned officer, won himself the Military Cross for gallantry, but he opposed the war and wrote poems of the hell that was the trenches. This is just the start of the contradictions and the self loathing Davies portrays of his life, and the result is a heartbreaking look at a man who was never able to answer that question satisfactorily.
The story of Sassoon, played in the film by Jack Lowden as a young man and Peter Capaldi as an older man, is inevitably one of failure, starting with his opposition to the war. In his disgust for the execution of the war and the thousands of young men being sent to die for immoral reasons, he disobeyed orders and got himself court-martialed. However, when his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) pulls some strings to get him sent to a military hospital instead, he resignedly goes and misses his chance to speak out in a more public way.
This early incident seems to haunt Sasson for the rest of his life. Despite friendships and relationships with many other great men of art, he is relegated to obscurity for most of his life after that, almost certainly in no small part due to his own resulting self-loathing. The rest of the film follows his life until old age, at one point digitally morphing Lowden into Capaldi, and many of these relationships, all of which end up unhappy.
The proceedings that follow are heart-wrenching and at times difficult to watch, with bright young men meeting and forming connections and then over time becoming increasingly crueller to one another but never really genuinely expressing their actual feelings. There’s something heartbreakingly British about these men not being able to open up to one another, even in secret; neither Sassoon nor anyone he is with ever really tells one another their thoughts, feelings, or desires. In never really opening up, Sassoon never really finds a way out of the darkness of his own tortured soul, either. He lives until the modern age but comes to despise it, remarking to his son that it’s simply because it is “younger than he is”, betraying that he could never change or grow with the times.
It feels as though director Terrance Davies has some kinship with Sassoon, both in the life of an artist and a gay man, which lends itself to another layer of heartbreak here. It takes sadness to convey sadness, and the tone Davies is able to strike combined with the performances from his cast, Lowden in particular, make Benediction an achievement. It’s not a happy film, and it ends before it honestly answers some of the questions that it asks, but it is a film designed to be melancholy and elicit your empathy for a man who was never happy with himself, and it is a compelling and heart-rending film as a result.
Benediction played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival. There is no Canadian distribution information at this time.
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