Saturday, May 21, 2022

Benediction – dark brooding biopic about Siegfried Sassoon (QFT until Thursday 26 May)

Benediction is one of those films that casts a dark shadow over your soul that lingers long after you leave the cinema. Your gut will churn until the next warning. I’m not sure if that’s the screenwriter/director Terence Davies’ intention, but it’s certainly my experience.

The biopic follows sharp-tongued Siegfried Sassoon through his experience of war, a medical discharge, his criticism of conflict – “too many have died, too much has been destroyed” – and a succession of unsuitable and unsatisfactory male lovers before meeting his wife.

The excellent Jack Lowden hands over to a curmudgeonly Peter Capaldi as the film jumps rather unsatisfactorily up and down Sassoon’s timeline. An early scene shows Sassoon’s conversation to Catholicism: it feels like this craving for redemption could, or should, become a really significant moment in the story, but the script fails to satisfy.

The likely more talented Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) of Dulce et Decorum Est school English poetry lesson fame crosses Sassoon’s path. Jeremy Irvine is gloriously out and selfish as Ivor Novello. Kate Phillips is the young Hester Gatty who captures his heart, or at least his desire for progeny, played in later scenes by Gemma Jones.

There’s a lot of agonising and inner turmoil. Sassoon is ill at ease with himself; less at ease with many of those around him; and even less with society at large. He sees his own life and his work’s lack of formal recognition as failure, while also bemoaning the catastrophe of conflict in his writing.

Well over two hours long, Benediction is at its best when it gives generous space for Sassoon’s words, often illustrating them with archive news footage as well as recreated scenes. The haunting sense of sadness and loneliness – not entirely novel feelings among poets – could have been a strength, but somehow the darkness ends up drowning the audience, and by the time the credits roll, while I’ve been educated about Sassoon, I really wish I’d spent two hours learning about Owen.

Benediction is being screened at Queen’s Film Theatre until Thursday 26 May.

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