Rated PG-13. At AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Landmark Kendall Square and suburban theaters.
A literary biographical film about the World War I-era English poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden as a young man, Peter Capaldi as an old man), Terence Davies’ “Benediction” covers many of the subjects the writer-director has previously addressed — war, poets, literature, Catholicism. One of the most striking things about this latest effort is how Davies incorporates the poetry of Sassoon and his friend and lover Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson).
Owen’s poems “Dulce et Decorum est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which are narrated by Lowden over stark archival images of WWI (the film makes extensive use of them) are raw, grief-stricken and fiercely anti-war. They are revelations in their power and unlike any previous British war poetry. They recall the nightmarish paintings of German WWI veteran Otto Dix more than anything else. Sassoon rightly refers to Owen, who died in France in 1918 one week before the end of the war, as “the greater poet.”
“Benediction” flashes back and forth from Sassoon’s war days when he wrote a public letter, a “Soldier’s Declaration,” demanding that the British government seek a quicker end to the war to save lives and refusing to fight any further, risking the firing squad. As a result of that letter, Sassoon, the recipient of a Military Cross, is remanded by superior officers, who have no combat experience, to an army hospital in Scotland (Sassoon dubs it “Dottyville”), where he meets a sympathetic doctor (Ben Daniels) and Owen, who howls at night and is eventually “passed” for combat by the military board and sent back to the front. Sassoon and Owen’s muted farewell is heartbreaking.
We also meet the grumpy, older Sassoon (Capaldi), who in spite of being homosexual, has married a woman named Hester (Gemma Jones) and fathered a son (Richard Goulding). The elder Sassoon is considering converting to Catholicism much to his adult son’s comically bitter dismay.
“Benediction” makes the common error of spending too much time on the love life and not enough on the creation of the art for which Sassoon is remembered. But as a result, we meet many of Sassoon’s witty, articulate, postwar, circle of friends and lovers. Among them are sharp-tongued Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), a journalist and executor of the estate of Oscar Wilde, aristocrat and lover Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch and Anton Lesser), one of the “Bright Young People.” Making an introduction, Sassoon says, “This is T.E. Lawrence,” pauses, and then adds, “of Arabia.” I’m afraid Sassoon’s lover, the actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) is not as interesting as he thinks. Not much is made of Sassoon’s childhood. His father was Jewish. His sculptor mother named him after a Wagner opera, something Robbie teases him about.
The lines read by Lowden give us a sense of the genius of the times and the fire that drives poets to find their voices. Sassoon was one of the most outspoken anti-war poets. Lowden makes you wish the film was a series. “Benediction” is indeed a blessing. Just in time for “Downton Abbey: A New Era” comes this even more poetic and piercing look back.
(“Benediction” contains disturbing images and mature themes.)