LUMI Reviews: Benediction

20 May 2022

LUMI young programmer Fionntán Macdonald reviews a new release. This week, revered filmmaker Terence Davies' latest film, Benediction.

LUMI Reviews Benediction

From the pen and lens of the often lauded but perpetually marginalised filmmaker Terence Davis comes Benediction (2022), an experimental examination of the life and loves of war poet Siegfried Sassoon. This lyrical, poignant and ultimately tragic film is a deeply personal project for its auteur that interrogates hefty themes with crisp wit and profound feeling and reveals much not only about its fascinating subject, but Davis himself.

"He was looking for redemption…” said Davis about Sassoon, a man whose life holds several pointed parallels to the man bringing his story to the screen. A principled man with a shadow life, Sassoon’s story is one of bloodshed, bereavement and duplicity that has been anchored here by two stellar performances, from the rising star Jack Lowden and elder statesman Peter Capaldi, who capture two eras of the poet’s life, and two disparate identities he created for himself.

There’s an uncomfortable disparity between the two central takes on Sassoon, a question of how one man (bright, creative and elegant) became the other; callous, resentful and acerbic. Despite the difference in tone both performers deliver a strong outing with a subtle continuity in gesture and intonation which paints a singular, coherent portrait. Yet it is Lowden who steals the show with a stirring embodiment of Sassoon that is equal parts charming, compassionate and calamitously emotive. The duel portrayals are bolstered throughout by a formidable supporting cast who seamlessly integrate into the setting and match the tenor of Lowden’s performance with deft proficiency. Particularly effective in their roles are the genially patriarchal Ben Daniels as a doctor whom Sassoon forms a connection with and Jeremy Irvine who delivers a sinister and serpentine rendition of famed songwriter Ivor Novello. While none of these auxiliary troupe eclipse the lead role, they certainly illuminate it.

In many ways this film is about relationships. Structured almost as a series of interludes into the defining connections of Sassoon’s life, we see how a man was built, and broken, by great personal losses and an almost sacrificial commitment to his ideals. Each foray into his tumultuous love life or ill-fated friendships is used to reveal great recesses of subtext, and the script, penned by Davis himself, does a lot to cultivate an audiences emotions without needless augmentation.

Benediction is not structured as a traditional biopic, nor should it be mistaken for a war film (indeed not a single battle is fought nor a bullet fired within its two hour runtime), rather it is a musing on memory, morality and trauma from a filmmaker who feels a clear connection to his subject. The construction of the film’s chronology is experimental, a composition of two parallel timelines, contemporary footage of war dead and wounded (utilised to harrowing effect in quasi documentary style) and ethereal, almost transcendental, set pieces. It’s a strange mix of styles that is, at first, perplexing and may disaffect some less receptive viewers. However, the initially disjointed elements become a far more cohesive whole as the themes of the film are fleshed out and the picture progresses into a third act that is genuinely affecting and resolves on a final, heartrending image.

Davis has clearly found a profound connection with the subject of his film who, like the director himself, was gay, was at one time Catholic and was perpetually seeking redemption.

“The thing about redemption is you can’t find it in anyone else, or in any religion,” said Davis.

“You have to find it in yourself.”

Siegfried Sassoon, although a fascinating figure in his own right, has been rendered here as a larger than life analogue for Terence Davis as a man and as an artist. And much like Sassoon, and Davis himself, there is more to Benediction than you might expect.

- written by Fionntán Macdonald