Benediction Review: Terence Davies carefully cultivates his 20th-century tragedies
Directed by Terence Davies. Cast: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Kate Phillips. 12A, 137 minutes.
“The pain isn’t the only horror,” complains the war poet Siegfried Sassoon blessing. But this torment is nameless to him, and in Terence Davies’ film about his life we spend a lot of time trying in vain to find words for his sadness. blessing is not a cradle-to-grave biopic, nor does it dramatize a single, central event. It is the breathless quest of a man racing back and forth through the chapters of his life in search of something concrete and true. It’s beautiful, but only in the way it handles its tragedies with such care.
The film begins in 1914. We watch Siegfried (Jack Lowden) and his brother Hamo (Thom Ashley) change into their officer’s uniforms and beam from ear to ear. Within minutes, Hamo is dead in Gallipoli and Siegfried is hospitalized with trench fever. Traumatized, he refuses to report again for a war he now believes has been “deliberately prolonged” and asks for a court-martial and a platform to speak for the dead and deposed. Even if it ended in his own execution. But the social status of his family prevents such a thing – he is simply shipped off to a military sanatorium in Edinburgh under the pretense of being shell-shocked.
There he finds intimacy with fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) and then lives with relative openness as a gay man – spun into the Bright Young Things of Twenties London. Davies refines three of his most notable romances: with actors Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine, eyes seductively rimmed with kohl) and Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), and socialite Stephen Tennant (Bridgeton‘s Calam Lynch). All three end in heartbreak. “You have to redeem my life for me,” he pleads with wife Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), who is about to become his wife.
The only solid ground blessing Lies in Sassoon’s lines of poetry, recited by Lowden and played alongside newsreels of muddied soldiers staring out of the screen – at us, at Siegfried, maybe at Davies too. It is a widely held thesis that every film by the director functions as an autobiography in some way. There are material connections in his early dramas Distant voices, still life (1988) and The long day closes (1992), set in his hometown of Liverpool. But here, as well as in A silent passion (2016) – his ode to Emily Dickinson – we see Davies being broken by the soul of a fellow poet.
“I hated being gay and I’ve been celibate for most of my life,” the director said The guard in 2015. And there’s a clear sense of internal torture at work blessing, which is reflected in the calibrated harshness of Nicola Daley’s cinematography. A shot of Siegfried throwing his military cross into the River Mersey (an incident debunked when the medal was found in an attic) borders on the lurid; A few scenes later, the sight of Wilfred and Siegfried swimming past each other in a pool, about to touch but not quite, feels divine. That contrast alone is strangely disarming.
Even as Lowden’s face sinks with the shaky resignation of a man who feels an entire army marching across his grave, the film ignites around him with the many barbs and knockdowns of the accomplished minds of that era. Irvine and Lynch’s lines are both crushing and silk-spun. A highlight? “Her poetry has evolved from the sublime to the meticulous.” Simon Russell Beale stars as Robbie Ross, a close friend of Oscar Wilde; Lia Williams is fantastically haughty like poet Edith Sitwell.
When we meet an older Siegfried (now sinisterly played by Peter Capaldi), his quest for “something permanent [and] immutable” unsatisfactorily led him to the Catholic Church. But nothing will stop these slippery, anonymous horrors – and blessing, in its final blow, simply leaves us with the rain of Siegfried’s tears at the sight of a soldier whose legs have been amputated. The final, heartbreaking lines of Owen’s “Disabled” play us out: “How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come / And put him to bed? Why don’t they come?”
“Benediction” hits theaters Friday, May 20th
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/benediction-review-jack-lowden-b2081964.html Benediction Review: Terence Davies carefully cultivates his 20th-century tragedies