Terence Davies struggled to raise the finance for Benediction, as he does so often with his films. There’s no multiplex demand for Emily Dickinson (subject of his last feature, 2016’s A Quiet Passion) or Edith Wharton (2000’s The House of Mirth), he’s told, and in any case the uncompromising Davies isn’t the sort of writer/director to meet audiences halfway with explication-heavy dialogue. Producers and money men take fright. And yet, every time a new Davies movie does finally make it to the screen, it turns out that there is an audience for it, the people who have some idea who this modernist poet was, or that infamous writer, or want to know more.
This time around it’s Siegfried Sassoon, the “war poet” whose later work was always overshadowed by his First World War output and yet who lived on until the 1960s, an increasingly bitter man.
The way Davies tells it, this is the story of a man who undergoes two conversions – one to the Catholic faith late in life, the other to a heteronormative life, marrying and having a child in spite of the fact that his sexual passions lie elsewhere.
Young Sassoon is played by the supple and subtle Jack Lowden, suddenly the flavour of the minute, and old Siegfried is Peter Capaldi, face screwed tight, larynx scratchy, all angles and regrets.
It’s a triathlon of a movie. In the first part we meet Siegfried as the bright, handsome soldier objecting to the conduct of the war – it’s gone from being a war of defence and liberation to one of aggression and conquest, he says – and finding himself as a consequence sequestered in an asylum for soldiers with shell shock, as PTSD was called back then. If strings hadn’t been pulled, it’s suggested, Sassoon’s unwillingness to fight might have got him shot.
Here, Siegfried gets a cold reception by the chief medical officer (Julian Sands) but a warm one from the charming Dr Rivers (Ben Daniels, rather good), a believer in the talking cure who realises instantly that Sassoon is not as other men – in terms of intellect and sexual preferences. While at the hospital Sassoon meets, mentors, befriends and who knows what else fellow “war poet” Wilfred Owen, whose early death is the first in a series of doomed relationships with men.
Part two, the most significant chunk, picks up that idea, with Siegfried out of uniform and installed as one of the Bright Young Things of 1920s society, a group of people Davies depicts as being almost uniformly ghastly. Siegfried has affairs, first with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Davies), a spectacularly nasty near-caricature of the gay man at his most waspish, effete and poisonous. Later there’s a similarly rocky relationship with another gay bitch, the appalling Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch, who, like Jeremy Irvine, should get some sort of award for self-sacrifice)
And on into part three, featuring Capaldi, a look back in rancour by the broken poet at a life that has, emotionally at least, been wasted.
Davies is interested in the Bright Young Things phase most of all, though it is in some respects the least successful chunk. To a man and a woman, everyone speaks in the same asphoristic rhythms, somewhere between Oscar Wilde (namechecked) and the “get her” banter of a drag queen putting down a heckler. It becomes wearing, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Edith Sitwell, Ivor Novello, Robbie Ross (lover of Oscar Wilde and played here by Simon Russell Beale), TE Lawrence, Lady Sybil Colefax, all of them epigrammatic and disparaging, metaphorically turning on a heel with a flounce after every sneering utterance.
No one is introduced with a biographical thumbnail – if you don’t know who Morrell or Sitwell are, Davies isn’t going to tell you. And he’s uncompromising in his use of Sassoon’s poems, in spite of the effect on the box-office. Davies’s own history (raised Catholic, gay) lurks in this indulgent, sad-eyed portrayal of a life destroyed first by sexual expression and then by sexual repression. To an extent it’s an autobiography that dare not speak its name.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023