Benediction: Does It Matter?, by David Bax
Terence Davies’ Benediction contains poetry. On the one hand, that’s a literal description of the movie; it’s a biography of twentieth century British poet Siegfried Sassoon. But those familiar with Davies‘ work will know that it’s also a description of the whole piece. Davies crafts his movies as expertly and passionately as a poet considering every syllable written down, evoking whole volumes of emotion every few seconds.
Given that he’s a crafter of actual pictures, painting actually might be the more appropriate fine art to which we should compare Davies, particularly the neoclassicists. His frames are deceptively matter-of-fact, seemingly unadorned. But light and attention to set and costume details provide an inviting depth, not just of focus but of the physical space suggested by the two dimensional image. Symmetry and the repetition of certain shot structures develop a cadence. Once established, it’s impossible to break its alluring spell.
Classicism is not quite the same as realism, though. That’s not to suggest that Benediction is in some way fantastical. This is the real story of real people who lived and spoke and suffered and created and fucked and died. Davies even employs archival footage from the era. Yet his subtle but methodical aesthetic embellishments make everything feel enhanced, turned up a little brighter.
That extends to the performances of his cast, which he directs with his usual eye toward controlled theatricality. Luckily, they’re all on his wavelength (probably a testament to his directorial skill). Jack Lowden is the younger Sassoon and, in the later years, he’s played by the great Peter Capaldi, who’s joined by other notable British thespians like Simon Russell Beale, Julian Sands, Anton Lesser and Gemma Jones. Lowden’s not exactly left to his own devices in the younger sections, either. Benediction may help turn recognizable faces (War Horse‘s Jeremy Irvine, Bridgerton‘s Calam Lynch) into recognizable names.
One of the film’s most potent ingredients is the romance between Sassoon and Irvine’s Ivor Novello. The real life Sassoon was known for his poems about the First World War and one of the chief tensions between the film’s Sassoon and Novello observes a truism of British society of the time and human nature in general. Namely, war is a constant presence in the life of those who have survived it and a bygone for those who avoided it.
Whether or not Sassoon–the real one or the movie one–is actually suffering from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder is not something Davies is keen to unpack. Yet it’s clear in Lowden’s cautious performance that his experiences lead him to withdraw into himself. His membership in the society of veterans doesn’t seem to bring him much camaraderie. In fact, that’s true of each of the cloistered cultures to which he belongs. Veterans, intellectuals and gay men each share their own common languages. But, even at the epicenter of all three, the tragedy of Benediction is that Sassoon suffers alone.