Rated PG-13. At AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Landmark Kendall Square and suburban theaters.
A literary biographical film about English World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden as a young man, Peter Capaldi as an old man), Terence Davies’ “Benediction” covers many topics the writer-director has covered before. – war, poets, literature, Catholicism. One of the most striking things about this latest effort is how Davies incorporates poetry from Sassoon and his friend and lover Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson).
Owen’s poems “Dulce et Decorum est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, which are told by Lowden over stark archival footage from World War I (the film makes heavy use of them) are raw, burdened with grief and fiercely anti-war. These are revelations in their power and unlike any previous British war poetry. They are more reminiscent of the nightmarish paintings of German World War I veteran Otto Dix than anything else. Sassoon rightly refers to Owen, who died in France in 1918 a week before the end of the war, as “the greatest poet”.
The ‘blessing’ comes back to Sassoon’s wartime days when he wrote a public letter, a ‘soldier’s statement’, demanding that the British government seek a quicker end to the war to save lives and refusing to continue to fight, risking the firing squad. As a result of this letter, Sassoon, a recipient of a Military Cross, is discharged by senior officers, who have no combat experience, to a military hospital in Scotland (Sassoon nicknames it “Dottyville”), where he meets a sympathetic doctor (Ben Daniels) and Owen, who screams at night and is eventually “passed over” for combat by the military council and sent back to the front. Sassoon and Owen’s muted farewell is heartbreaking.
We also meet the grumpy Sassoon (Capaldi), who, though gay, married a woman named Hester (Gemma Jones) and fathered a son (Richard Goulding). The elder Sassoon considers converting to Catholicism much to the comic dismay of his adult son.
“Blessing” makes the common mistake of spending too much time on the love life and not enough on creating the art Sassoon is remembered for. But as a result, we meet many of Sassoon’s witty and articulate post-war friends and lovers. Among them are Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), journalist and executor of the estate of Oscar Wilde, the aristocrat and lover Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch and Anton Lesser), one of the “Bright Young People”. By way of introduction, Sassoon says, “It’s TE Lawrence,” pauses, then adds, “from Arabia.” I’m afraid Sassoon’s lover, actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) isn’t 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, which Robbie teases him about.
The lines read by Lowden give us an idea of the genius of the time and the fire that drives poets to find their voice. Sassoon was one of the most outspoken anti-war poets. Lowden makes you wish the movie was a series. “Blessing” is indeed a blessing. Just in time for “Downton Abbey: A New Era” comes this even more poetic and piercing return.
(“Blessing” contains disturbing imagery and mature themes.)