By VIEW editor Brian Pelan
Director Terence Davies has opted to concentrate on the love life of war poet Siegfried Sassoon in his latest film, ‘Benediction’. His decision is to be commended but it doesn’t quite come off.
Running at two hours 17 minutes, Davies had ample time to get his vision across, but it often moves at a glacial pace.
Sassoon (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) witnessed the horrors of the First World War at first hand. He fought in the trenches and blood-splattered fields and became a focal point for criticism from the higher echelons of the British armed forces when he made a lone protest against the continuation of the war in his “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917.
There is a powerful scene in Benediction when Sassoon is interrogated by three senior army figures. They are full of scorn and contempt for his arguments. In their twisted view, a soldier’s only purpose is to obey orders at all times. Morality doesn’t come into it.
The decorated war hero is not subject to a court-martial – family connections save him. He is sent away instead to a military psychiatric hospital. There he meets and mentors fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). An unbearable sadness hangs over their final meeting as Owen was killed one week before the signing of the Armstice which ended the war.
The film shows Sassoon agonised by unhappy gay relationships with men like Stephen Tennant and Ivor Novello, then seemingly trapped, in the latter stages of his life, in an unhappy marriage. The language is full of barbs and attempted witty put-downs. It feels, at times though, that Oscar Wilde wrote parts of the script on an off-day for the master of satire.
The audience is jolted back into the madness of the war with black and white footage intermittently shown off the unfolding horror in Europe. The war which destroyed a generation, shattered Sassoon’s peace of mind. He was to never fully recover from the horrors he had witnessed.
Actor Jack Lowden plays the young Sassoon and Peter Capaldi (an inspired choice) is the older version.
One long drawn out powerful scene shows Sassoon’s face contorted with anguish as he is fully consumed by what he had experienced.
The unfolding war in Ukraine with mounting casualties can’t be ignored as you watch Benediction. Sassoon himself wrote in his famous poem ‘Aftermath‘ –
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
It appears, sadly, that we have forgotten.