Benediction review – Terence Davies’ piercingly sad Siegfried Sassoon drama

The tragic life of the poet and soldier is revisited with melancholy and theatricality in a bleak, and often hard to watch, biopic

Terence Davies’s uncompromisingly sombre film about Siegfried Sassoon reminded me of how Enoch Powell, at the nadir of his political self-pity, would moan to anyone who would listen: “I wish I had been killed in the war.”

Benediction proceeds in a series of movie tableaux with a stylised theatricality, a cinematic magic lantern show with conventionally acted scenes, archive first world war footage, grim clinical photographs, back-projections and superimpositions from which the figure of Siegfried Sassoon emerges: the hero who won the Military Cross for gallantry, but went on fiercely to oppose the war, wrote poetry about the hell of the trenches and befriended and inspired the young Wilfred Owen – yet after the war endured a long anticlimax of obscurity, disappointment and loneliness.

The film shows him agonised by unhappy gay relationships with men like Stephen Tennant and Ivor Novello, an acquaintance with brittle and conceited bright young things and excruciatingly minor artistic talents, then marooned in an unhappy marriage – which Davies portrays as more harshly unhappy than it may actually have been – and finally glumly set on converting to Catholicism, to the derision of his grownup son. Jack Lowden plays the young Sassoon and Peter Capaldi is the older version: there is an eerily disturbing CGI scene in which the young face morphs into the hawkish, fierce Sassoon in his older years.

It is a film which is piercingly and almost unbearably about failure: the catastrophic moral and spiritual failure of war which is aligned to Sassoon’s own terrible sense of personal shortcomings. Benediction shows the humiliation of his failure to make a proper stand against the war. Sickened by the senseless slaughter, he defiantly disobeys orders, but his friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), the former intimate of Oscar Wilde, pulls some establishment strings to ensure that this decorated war hero of good family is not subject to a scandalous court-martial but sent away to a military psychiatric hospital, his outburst tactfully squared away as a nervous breakdown, and Sassoon cannot muster the determination to refuse this charitable treatment. There he meets and mentors Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), and is later haunted by Owen’s brilliance as a poet and of course by the fact that Owen died in action, an ironically dulce et decorum est deliverance – while he must deal with his own survivor’s guilt, finally raging pointlessly at the modern world. Perhaps he even fails at being true to his own sexual nature.

And the war is behind everything: the war which destroyed a generation, and destroyed Sassoon’s peace of mind but without conferring on him the benediction of artistic achievement. After the war, Sassoon exchanges embittered, pert bon mots with his various inamorati – cruel, vain men like Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch – who is later to CGI-morph into Anton Lesser) and an entirely obnoxious Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), who is shown singing his shrill comedy song And Her Mother Came, Too. (Robert Altman’s Gosford Park in 2001 had Jeremy Northam playing Novello as a country-house guest, singing this same song.)

This is a movie which returns Davies in many ways to his early trilogy: Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration – a world of guilt, shame and self-scrutiny in which possibilities of faith and beauty are reverently but painfully pursued. Sassoon is an opaque figure in this film, but he and we are vouchsafed a vision of greatness in Wilfred Owen’s poem Disabled, in which a meaning within the agony is revealed. Benediction is not an easy experience and some of the caustic, brittle dialogue scenes with Sassoon’s celebrity acquaintances are grating – yet deliberately so. The sadness is overwhelming.

  • Benediction screened at the Toronto film festival and released on 20 May in cinemas in the UK


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Forgiven review – Chastain and Fiennes light up darkly comic thriller
John Michael McDonagh’s mostly entertaining adaptation of Laurence Osborne’s novel offers an unusual mix of provocation and penance

Benjamin Lee

11, Sep, 2021 @11:45 PM

Article image
Terence Davies on sex, death and Benediction
As his Siegfried Sassoon biopic is released, the director opens up about his ill-fated straight romance, being snubbed by Bafta and how it felt to sleep in the bed where his father died

Ryan Gilbey

20, May, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Mad Woman’s Ball review – Mélanie Laurent’s compelling melodrama
The actor turns director again for a compelling psychodrama about women subjected to experimental psychiatric treatment

Peter Bradshaw

13, Sep, 2021 @3:00 AM

Article image
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain review – Cumberbatch’s cat artist drowns in quirk
Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of eccentric Edwardian artist famed for his cute cats is brimful of star cameos but gets lost in mannered performances

Peter Bradshaw

03, Sep, 2021 @6:15 AM

Article image
Ammonite review – Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan find love among the fossils | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week
Francis Lee’s sensational biopic of palaeontology pioneer Mary Anning reimagines her erotic encounter with a woman trapped in a stifling marriage

Peter Bradshaw

25, Mar, 2021 @11:58 AM

Article image
Benediction review – artful Siegfried Sassoon biopic full of unresolved yearning
The war poet’s life provides rich material for director Terence Davies to explore his preoccupations with sexuality, religion and the search for redemption

Mark Kermode Observer film critic

22, May, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
The Eyes of Tammy Faye review – Jessica Chastain nails gaudy TV evangelist
A compelling performance from the often miscast actor carries an otherwise by-the-numbers look at a Christian couple who spectacularly fell from grace

Benjamin Lee

13, Sep, 2021 @3:15 AM

Article image
Ford v Ferrari review – motor-racing drama gets stuck in first gear
Matt Damon and Christian Bale star in a handsome-looking but dull account of the rivalry between the US and Italian car-makers

Peter Bradshaw in Toronto

10, Sep, 2019 @10:01 AM

Article image
Sunset Song review: Agyness Deyn shines in Terence Davies' lolling romantic drama
Sun, sex and sumptuousness rule in Terence Davies’s adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel about a farming family torn apart by tragedy on the eve of the first world war

Henry Barnes

13, Sep, 2015 @9:26 PM

Article image
True Mothers review – Naomi Kawase's heartfelt yet frustrating drama
The director of The Mourning Forest returns with another sensitive film, this time about a difficult adoption, yet plot holes prove distracting

Peter Bradshaw

13, Apr, 2021 @10:17 AM