Since his first feature, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” in 1988, British writer and director Terence Davies has made a handful of films that can be described – because of their emotional subtlety and formal precision – as poetic. Recently, he has been making films about poets, which is not quite the same thing.
“Biopic” is a clunky word for a prosaic genre, and biographies of screen writers are more likely to be literal than lyrical. I thought “A Quiet Passion,” Davies’ 2017 rendering of the life of Emily Dickinson, was an exception, as attentive to the inner weather of its subject as to the details of its time and place. Some of Dickinson’s admirers felt otherwise, but I still insist that the film and Cynthia Nixon’s central performance brought the poet’s idiosyncratic and indelible genius to life.
“Benediction”, about British poet Siegfried Sassoon, is in some ways a more conventional affair. Sassoon, whose life spanned the late Victorian era through the 1960s, is best known as one of the war poets. Their experience in the trenches of World War I inspired verses that changed the diction and direction of English literature, and Davies powerfully begins the film with archival footage of massacre accompanied by Sassoon’s merciless words, taken from poems, prose memoirs and letters.
Similar words and images recur at various points in a narrative that occasionally jumps in time but primarily tells the timeline of Sassoon’s post-war life. He is played in his thirties and forties by Jack Lowden and as an older, more unfortunate man by Peter Capaldi, whose resemblance to Sassoon’s late photographs is uncanny.
Having already achieved some notoriety as a writer while the war was still in progress, Sassoon circulated a scathing anti-war statement in which he refused to continue serving on the grounds that “war is being deliberately prolonged by those who the power to put an end to it”. Expecting a court-martial and ready, at least in principle, to face a firing squad, he is instead summoned before a medical board, thanks to the intervention of a well-placed older friend named Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale). His pacifism is classified as a psychological disorder, and he is sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, where he reveals his homosexuality to a sympathetic doctor (Julian Sands) and befriends Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a young poet. who will be killed in action shortly before the armistice.
Sassoon’s later social and romantic pursuits take up much of the second half of “Blessing”, meaning his writing fades into the background. The portrait of an angsty artist becomes a somewhat familiar tableau of inter-war Britain, with Bright Young Things coming and going and speaking in beautifully twisted and terrifyingly cruel sentences. (“Maybe it was a bit too acerbic,” Sassoon says of the victim of one of his barbs.”Biting would be a more accurate word,” Sassoon replies.) Winston Churchill is mentioned as a guy you know. Edith Sitwell, Lady Ottoline Morrell and TE Lawrence all make cameo appearances.
Davies offers an unhurried tour of the privileged and educated gay circles that helped set the tone of the times. I realize “gay” is a bit of an anachronism here, but many of Sassoon’s friends and lovers – including Ross, composer and matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and legendary dilettante Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch ) – are aware of belonging to a tradition that mixes sexuality with cultural attitudes and artistic activities. Oscar Wilde is invoked both as an idol and, due to his lawsuits in the 1890s, as a figure of caution.
Sassoon and his cohort are committed to discretion, irony, and the occasional strategic compromise with heterosexuality. Sassoon’s marriage to Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, then Gemma Jones) is affectionate and devoid of illusions, producing a son named George (Richard Goulding), who endures his father’s grumbling conservatism of old age.
Sassoon’s complaints about rock ‘n’ roll and his conversion to Roman Catholicism sound more like duly noted biographical facts than expressions of character. Even the most intimate passages of “Benediction” — the affairs with Novello and Tennant, and the heartache that follows each other’s end — are more restrained than impassioned. This partly reflects Sassoon’s own temperament, which he says Craiglockhart’s doctor is marked by circumspection and detachment. But the film never quite evokes a link between life and work.
Except for a pair of extraordinary scenes involving not the work of Sassoon, but that of Wilfred Owen. Sassoon confesses to having despised Owen when they first met, on the grounds of class and age, but comes to regard him as “the greatest poet”. History has largely confirmed this judgment, and Davies reports it with astonishing force.
At the hospital, Owen asks Sassoon for his opinion on a poem titled “Disabled”, which Sassoon pronounces brilliant after reading it silently. Audiences won’t hear Owen’s words until the film’s final scene, when the poem’s harrowing tale of a young man crippled in battle is portrayed onscreen in an impressionistic fashion. Until then, we have thought of war, heard it translated into poetry and glimpsed its brutality. And then, through the filter of Sassoon’s tormented memory, we feel it.
Rated PG-13. Duration: 2h17. In theaters.