June 16, 2022

Film

Battle lines: Terence Davies’ ‘Benediction’

By Luke McCarthy
Image of Jeremy Irvine (left) and Jack Lowden in Benediction. Image © Laurence Cendrowicz / Roadside Attractions

Jeremy Irvine (left) and Jack Lowden in Benediction. Image © Laurence Cendrowicz / Roadside Attractions

The English director’s latest film, exploring the life of war poet Siegfried Sassoon, possesses both a visual and a moral clarity

In a public letter distributed in 1917 and titled “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”, Siegfried Sassoon, renowned war poet and the focus of Terence Davies biographical drama Benediction, wrote: “I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” Thrown into the horrors of trench warfare during World War One, Sassoon refused to return to battle after a period of convalescent leave in England. In response, he was admitted to a military psychiatric hospital for “nervous debility”. Read aloud throughout the film, Sassoon’s war poetry describes a world of meaningless death and ceaseless agony. Moral and spiritual rot.

Though Benediction begins with this early, formative chapter in Sassoon’s life, its chronology is loose and expansive. The film jumps backwards and forwards in time, moving between the many love affairs of young Sassoon (portrayed with verve by Jack Lowden), a queer man living in a time when homosexuality was illegal, to his bitter, unsatisfying later years as a married man approaching old age (portrayed by Peter Capaldi). Sassoon’s love affairs begin in the psychiatric hospital when he falls for a young poet named Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). After being shipped back out to war, Owen is killed in combat, and this loss remains a lingering presence throughout Sassoon’s life. Sassoon later attaches himself to actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), with both affairs eventually being defined by their volatility.

One of the hidden joys of Benediction can be found in its portrayal of the sacred, catty and seemingly eternal language of queerness. Sassoon’s relationships in Benediction are characterised by a biting and laconic sense of wit, and the cutting wordplay on display throughout the film is, to put it plainly, delicious. Yet despite the glee with which these words are delivered, they can also very quickly turn sour. These verbal barbs are used not only as a means of bonding and entertainment, but also as a form of self-preservation. This self-preservation is in many ways necessary in a world that has outlawed queer people’s existence, but it also creates for many of the characters in the film a kind of impenetrable outer shell; the only response to any form of emotional pain is that of cruel dismissal. It is no surprise – though still no less tragic – that in old age, Sassoon’s verbal dexterity eventually hardens into a corrosive acid tongue.

Benediction’s fluid movement between past and present is nothing new for Terence Davies. His first feature film, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), is a masterpiece of free-associative autobiography, taking an impressionistic view of a working-class British family throughout the 1940s and 50s. Some 34 years later, Davies’ cine-poet sensibilities are perhaps more measured, though no less potent. At a particularly striking moment early in Benediction, a young Sassoon sits alone in a church. The camera begins to move around him. As it does so, one soon becomes aware that Jack Lowden’s face and body appear to be slowly morphing into someone else’s. This person seems older, noticeably more weathered. Before our eyes, the young Sassoon becomes his older self (this is the first time we see Capaldi’s Sassoon). Though the technique here is achingly simple, I was immediately struck by its frankness. There is something disarming about the purity of Davies’ expression, the way in which these images cut through by saying exactly what they mean.

The poetic style of Benediction is in many ways defined by this frankness. It is a style that seems to exist entirely outside of the contemporary: sincere, direct and consistently beguiling. The film’s many abstract flourishes – superimpositions, slow and luxurious fades – arrive seemingly unannounced throughout the film, only adding to their disarming potency. This disarming quality extends to the mise-en-scène itself. There are very few close-ups in Benediction, with most scenes covered in simple, unmoving mid-shots. The repositioning of the camera during a standard shot-reverse shot can express a tectonic shift in Sassoon’s world. At its most tender, the simple clasping of two men’s hands can reverberate with deep-seated desire. Despite a decidedly realist palette, there is also an alluring, painterly quality to the world created by Davies, cinematographer Nicola Daley and production designer Andy Harris. I wanted to inhale these images. They feel densely arranged and tactile, articulated with the clarity of a master completely in tune with his intuition.

Alongside Davies’ visual clarity is also a moral one, for Benediction is a film that remains brutally honest about the horrors of war. Debate has long raged around whether the “anti-war film” is possible in a medium built upon spectacle and identification. As the late French filmmaker François Truffaut once claimed, “to show something [on film] is to ennoble it”. In Benediction, Davies seems to take a similar stance. The only footage of war we see is real-life stock footage. There is no cinematic sheen to these images. They are old, grainy and difficult to watch. At different moments in the film, Sassoon’s poetry is read aloud as we are forced to sit with these documents of war. It is important to note that Davies also chooses to include foley alongside these images. It seems clear that although he does not want to “ennoble” warfare, he also wants to avoid rendering these images as distant or sterile. When we see the terrors of trench warfare that men such as Sassoon, Owen and millions of others were forced to endure, it is not something we passively observe, but actively experience. We see and hear it. Alongside Sassoon’s poetry, these images – grotesque, terrifying and real – seem to say one thing very clearly: humans were not made for war.

The trauma of warfare hangs over Siegfried Sassoon throughout Benediction, and Davies articulates this in ways that are stunningly forthright. Several times we see Sassoon from behind, black-and-white stock footage from the trenches superimposed around him. He exists alone in the frame, surrounded by the terrors that he once made a name for himself describing. If the second act’s narrow, exceedingly detailed focus on Sassoon’s affairs threatens to distract from this lingering trauma (throwing the film’s narrative slightly off-balance in the process), the tragic conclusion to Sassoon’s arc makes it achingly clear.

When talking to the psychiatrist at the military hospital where he was sent, Sassoon describes the men that he served with as “all that was good and true” in the world. “Are you searching for truth?” asks the psychiatrist. “And if you find it, what then?” Sassoon answers simply: “Peace of mind. Contentment. No longer yearning for what’s been lost.” The tragedy of Benediction is that despite Sassoon’s constant yearning, despite his attempts to act as a moral citizen, this is a truth that will never be found. Later in the film, Sassoon marries into heterosexuality, but again this does not offer him salvation. His marriage turns loveless and his relationship with his son (“My whole future depends on him,” he says at the child’s birth) is dysfunctional and strained. Sassoon even turns to religion, meekly stating that what it offers him is “something permanent”. This seems to bring little relief, however. Country, family and religion hold no answers for Sassoon. Love has only been a source of insecurity and pain. Perhaps there is no answer to be found in the suffering inflicted on everyday people by society. After having seen the atrocities of war, after living with suppression and shame all your life, how can you ever find a truth that justifies all that was lost?

Luke McCarthy

Luke McCarthy is a filmmaker, writer and critic living in Naarm / Melbourne. He has written for The Guardian, ABC and The Big Issue, among other publications.

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