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‘Benediction’ Review: Terence Davies’ Siegfried Sassoon Biopic Is a Wounded Portrait of Poetry and Self-Loathing

TIFF: Davies follows his Emily Dickinson biopic "A Quiet Passion" with another painfully tender film about a kindred spirit.

“Benediction”

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From a pair of dreamy memoirs about his formative years (“Distant Voices, Still Lives,” “The Long Day Closes”), an archival documentary that excavated the city in which those years were spent (“Of Time and the City”), and swooning adaptations of the novels and plays that allowed him to make sense of his own wounded soul (“The Deep Blue Sea”), Liverpudlian auteur Terence Davies has established himself as one of the most achingly personal of master filmmakers; this despite his adamant belief that his personal life is “really boring.”

In a 2017 interview with IndieWire, the ever-confessional ex-Catholic insisted he’s “terrified of the world.” Davies spoke about his bitterness at being gay, conceded he’s “too self-conscious” for sex, and repeated a familiar line that any biography written about him would be a leaflet rather than a book. And yet the Emily Dickinson movie that Davies was there to promote is perhaps the most illuminating evidence that all of his films are ultimately self-portraits.

Dickinson too was afraid of the world. She had a skin missing. Davies recognized himself in the famous hermit, and in doing so also recognized that her life would make the stuff of great cinema, because his life always had. The director agreed that, despite literally telling another person’s story, “A Quiet Passion” was the most purely autobiographical film he’d ever made. More than just a brilliant reminder that any biography about Davies would certainly be longer than a leaflet, the film suggested that any proper biopic about Davies would have to be about someone else altogether.

With “Benediction” — another spectacular and terribly sad biopic about a poet cursed with the ability to express a private agony they could never escape — Davies has once again made a film that feels like the work of someone flaying their soul onscreen. Last time it was Emily Dickinson who provided the prism through which Davies could refract his own wants and wounds, and here it’s the English poet Siegfried Sassoon, an openly but resentfully gay man desperate for a peace of mind he only knew how to look for in other people. Davies has more in common with Sassoon than Dickinson — their lives even overlapped for a time — but viewers don’t have to know a single thing about the director’s work to sense his wounds bleeding through Sassoon’s aching story. This is a film that trembles with a need for redemption that never comes, and the urgency of that search is palpable enough that you can feel it first-hand, even if “Benediction” is never particularly clear about the nature of the redemption it’s hoping to find.

We first meet Siegfried (played by Jack Lowden as a young man, and briefly by Peter Capaldi as an older one) as a bright-faced chap in London circa 1914, days before he’s sent to fight in the Great War that he will survive but never escape. The early stretches of “Benediction” are almost as disorienting for us as they must have been for Sassoon, as a pall of Stravinsky pushes us through the first blast of archival footage that Davies — ever thrifty — uses to imply the fighting.

The film is hardly a few minutes old before Siegfried has lost a brother, saved a number of men on the field of battle, and thrown the Military Cross he’s been awarded for his bravery into the River Mersey. That bit of history turned out to be apocryphal, but hard proof exists of Sassoon’s blistering letter against the “political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed,” a seismic anti-war screed published by the press and read aloud in the House of Commons. It was the start of his career as a writer, and an act of gallantry that shadowed the rest of a life spent in retreat.

“Benediction” is structured like a regretful sigh, its disjointed scenes bound together by the anguish of lost time (much of what feels messy on first watch becomes poetic on the second). Davies effectively sluices his protagonist’s life into a series of overlapping relationships with other men. The most pivotal is set at the Edinburgh war hospital where his country sends him to convalesce from his feverish pacifism. It’s there Siegfried meets the doomed poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) and feels the first stirrings of romantic love; Siegfried’s failure to say a proper goodbye to Wilfred, or even a proper hello, will haunt and inhibit him for decades to come.

These scenes provide fertile ground for Davies to combine his raw vulnerability with his scabrous wit. “Benediction” is by far his cattiest film, and therefore also one of his funniest. This is a movie full of highborn dandies who jest about Revelle and stick their noses up at ragtime; people who chuckle haughtily rather than laugh because control over their own feelings is the only valuable currency between each other. Even the most arsenic-like bits of banter are laced with real hurt, and the most savage insults are delivered with a Coward’s smirk.

Lowden’s clenched jaw of a performance is more filter than focal point, but the actor sets the tone for a film that spends most of its time in the no man’s land between repartee and revenge, lovers and frenemies. None of the men Siegfried meets are more comfortable in that territory than actor, composer, and incorrigible playboy Ivor Novello (“War Horse” breakout Jeremy Irvine, all muscles, makeup, and jaw), who campily saunters through this movie like Norma Desmond in her prime. “If you want fidelity, buy a pet,” he tells one of his many discarded flings.

Davies has so much fun rendering these delicious gay socialites — young and beautiful and each reckoning with the pressures of conformity on their own terms — but the tenderness is always there too. One scene in which Siegfried and the sweet-natured Glen Byam Shaw (a wonderful Tom Blyth) get lost in the fog of a late-night drive is as gentle as anything the director has ever shot, and represents a rare moment in which Siegfried is able to reclaim a measure of the certainty that he lost after the war. Alas, Siegfried is so desperate for a way to calm his soul that he eventually marries a woman in the hopes that self-denial might lead to redemption. “There’s only one thing worse than remaining in the past,” he tells his mother, “and that’s begrudging the future.”

While the film is bursting with mid-century flavor, Davies renders even the lightest moments of “Benediction” (which include several trips to the theater) under such a funereal pall that Siegfried’s lonely fate is never in doubt. The occasional flash-forwards — including one in which Capaldi’s Siegfried lies down on the floor of a Catholic church and makes his body into the shape of a cross before asking Christ to release him from “the imprisonment of doubt” — exist to provide more emphasis than context. They examine in unsparing detail how Siegfried’s unresolved yearning curdles into resentment over the years, as he shrivels up and snipes at the various people who failed to redeem him. Needless to say, Capaldi’s poisoned tongue is put to good use. “Are you thinking great thoughts?” Siegfried is asked by his son. “No,” comes the reply, “I’m just sitting here being petty and trying to understand the enigma of other people.” Self-awareness can be its own cross to bear.

But it’s Siegfried who remains the biggest enigma of all, even when you can hear Davies’ voice filtering through him as the poet laments his minor artistic status and lashes at people for the love that he’s grown unwilling to receive. (“Why do you hate the modern world, father?” “Because it’s younger than I am.”).The more clearly Siegfried becomes a proxy for his director, the more difficult it becomes to pinpoint the source of his spiritual crisis.

Sexuality plays its part, but Davies’ approach is so personal and non-prescriptive that it’s hard to say if Siegfried is haunted by the cries of “the muffled dead,” the loss of Wilfred in particular, or suffering from a broader existential trauma brought on by his unseen experience in the war. The truth, of course, is likely a combination of those factors and several more, all of which are inextricable from each other in the end (a point underscored by a painfully beautiful closing sequence that epitomizes Davies’ ability to convey the crushing weight of time gone).

And yet, “Benediction” so implicitly believes that redemption can’t be found in anyone or anything other than oneself that it often feels like watching a man spend 137 minutes searching for something he needs in places we know he won’t find it. At this point in his career, it would seem that’s exactly what Davies is doing here as well. Yet by seeing himself reflected in the tragic story of yet another kindred spirit, the filmmaker blesses them both with the mutual sting of recognition. It’s a bittersweet futility best captured by an early scene in which Siegfried questions the hospital therapist about the purpose of their sessions together. “Think of them as a cleansing of the soul,” the doctor says. His eyes quivering with denied expiation, Siegfried can only reply with a rhetorical question: “Why do you have to put it so beautifully?”

Grade: B+

“Benediction” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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