Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same–and War’s a bloody game…
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Siegfried Sasson, Aftermath
In his previous film, A Quiet Passion (2016) Terence Davies explored the life of Emily Dickinson, a poet who barely left her room for 20 years. Somehow, the director managed to make a moving story from this most stationary of subjects, tapping the emotional undercurrent in Dickinson’s clipped and oblique verse. In Benediction he has written and directed a bio pic of Siegfried Sassoon, a very different kind of poet. Although he will be forever known for his poems and memoirs of the First World War, Sassoon was a man of many passions and contradictions.
Born into a wealthy family in Kent, he devoted his early years to cricket and fox-hunting, but was quick to enlist when Britain declared war on Germany. Due to his work in the trenches, Sassoon (Jack Lowden) was decorated for conspicuous bravery, but following the death of his brother, and a close childhood friend, his hatred for the war became an overwhelming obsession. Early in the film we hear the letter of denunciation Sassoon addressed to his superiors that would see him admitted to a military hospital in Edinburgh. It’s made clear that anybody less well-connected would have been court-martialled and put in front of a firing squad.
At Craiglockart War Hospital, Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), another convalescent who would become one of the great poets of World War I. He also finds a sympathetic soul in Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels), a psychologist who, like his patient, has learnt to be discreet about his homosexuality – a criminal offence in Britain until 1967.
Sassoon returns to the front, is wounded and sent to a London hospital, where he is treated as a literary celebrity. We quickly pass over this last phase of the war, settling into a more detailed account of the poet’s later life, spent in the midst of the “bright young things” satirised so remorselessly by Evelyn Waugh. He exists within a thriving gay subculture, pursuing love affairs with the popular entertainer, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), and the decadent socialite, Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch).
The dialogue is brisk and witty, but Sassoon is not exactly sparkling company. In his poetry he cannot tear himself away from memories of the war, which many of his companions avoided. There’s a brooding, melancholy side to his personality which will lead to a pattern of renunciations. In 1933 he would marry Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), who was twenty years younger than him. In the movie we jump back and forth in time, meeting an older Sassoon (Peter Capaldi), who embraces Catholicism and inflicts his personal bitterness on his wife (Gemma Jones) and son, George (Richard Goulding).
As with all Davies’s films, the story is told in a highly theatrical manner. In order to convey the most vivid impression of Sassoon’s personality, the director takes all sorts of liberties. One would never imagine, for instance, that the real Sassoon was 47 years-old at the time of his marriage. We move from the war to the post-war era to the 1960s, with almost indecent haste, condensing time for purely artistic purposes. What takes years seems to be only a matter of days.
The film proceeds episodically, as a series of set pieces anatomising key moments in Sassoon’s life. The conversations may be lengthy, the camerawork patient and static, but each scene contributes to our growing understanding of the character. To convey the horror and squalor of the war, Davies relies on old black-and-white newsreel footage. We watch soldiers advancing across blasted battlefields, wallowing in mud or burying their dead. Everywhere there are corpses, disfigured and decayed, frozen in bizarre poses. We cut from this gruesome parade, to some comfortable club or drawing room where Sassoon is working through an unhappy love affair.
More than most directors, Davies allows poetry and music to play a leading role. Poems are recited at length, in a way that resonates deeply with the visuals. Music is not used simply for background or the creation of atmosphere. Each song or tune makes us sit up and listen, as if we were present at a performance. Sometimes the effect can be comical, as in an old music hall number sung by an entertainer at the War Hospital; sometimes disconcerting, such as a rendition of Ghost Riders in the Sky – a song from 1948 – that accompanies footage of cattle stampeding and soldiers swarming across the battlefields of WW1. Towards the end of the movie, George takes his father to a musical in which the arid rituals of ‘Englishness’ are satirised. No comedy without a touch of sadness or spite, no grandeur without pain.
The final burst of music that leads us out of the film is Vaughan Williams’s Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, paired with a poem by Wilfred Owen. This serves as a dramatic counter to the frivolous popular stuff we’ve sampled throughout the story. These vaudeville or musical numbers show a “typically English” willingness to put a brave face to a tragic situation. Soldiers suffering from shellshock are cheered up by a singalong. A cold-blooded Ivor Novello makes a career from penning and performing archly comical songs.
While his friends, such as Edith Sitwell, compose Byzantine verse to be declaimed on stage to a select audience, Sassoon becomes increasingly estranged from the smart set. His experience of the war has changed him forever, rendering him incapable of enjoying the brittle cheerfulness and hedonism cultivated by his friends. He can’t be indifferent about the tragic and melancholy events of the past. In the midst of so much studied superficiality he craves something meaningful.
It’s not hard to see that Sassoon’s story has a personal resonance for Davies, whose early, autobiographical movies, such as Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), detailed his own painful sense of not belonging. Davies has admitted to being scarred by Catholicism and by his own sexuality. He has taken refuge in art – in cinema, music and literature. He understands the bitterness that grew on Sassoon as he became older and lonelier. A benediction is a blessing, but so much in Sassoon’s life could be viewed as a curse – from his agonising memories of the trenches to the disgust he feels with himself and his friends. The blessing, ironic as it may be, is the gift of clear-sightedness, of poetic insight. By the end of his life Sassoon is complaining about a lack of recognition, as if fame might be his salvation. Instead, he seems to have been damned to immortality.
Written & directed by Terence Davies
Starring: Jack Lowden, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Jeremy Irvine, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Peter Capaldi, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels, Matthew Tennyson, Richard Goulding, Simon Russell Beale, Anton Lesser
UK/USA, rated M, 137 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 June, 2022