Benediction may be Terence Davies’s gayest film yet: a character study of a WWI poet who keeps trying to reinvent himself and find solace. Jack Lowden was on our list of the fifty screen stars of tomorrow, and two of the supporting performers in Benediction made our list of the most exciting emerging actors at TIFF21.
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When Terence Davies adapted Terence Rattigan’s play about a mordantly funny woman, The Deep Blue Sea, for the screen, he put us so inside the head of the bright heroine that the film became a melodrama. In Davies’s two most recent films, A Quiet Passion and Benediction, both biopics of poets with acerbic wit, he takes a step back outside of his protagonists’ perspective, more akin to the perspective of Rattigan’s play. These films explore the pain, passion, and intellect that provoked, respectively, Emily Dickinson’s and Siegfried Sassoon’s biting takedowns. Like Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, Emily was a smart woman in a time when women’s independence was nonexistent and their intellect was not encouraged.
Siegfried Sassoon had more privilege than either Emily or Hester, but (like Emily) was gay at a time when that was illegal and hushed up, and he was in his prime when men his age were dying in droves on the battlefield. His privilege, however, means he has the opportunity to repeatedly reinvent himself rather than jump to attempting suicide or becoming a recluse.
Benediction begins with a young Sassoon (Jack Lowden) fresh out of catching an inspirational Stravinsky concert, signing up with his brother to fight in World War I. Davies moves so quickly here that whatever excitement Sassoon may have felt as a young soldier is almost immediately dampened by the sad look in his mother’s eyes as he leaves the station, the lament in voiceover that he never said goodbye to his brother, and the black-and-white archival footage of men dying on the battlefield, narrated by Lowden with one of Sassoon’s poems. The war changed him quickly, and the film’s tone changes quickly, too, almost brutally so.
Sassoon’s story really begins when he sends a letter to his superiors in protest of the war, but instead of being allowed to receive a court martial as a conscientious objector, he’s thwarted by his well-connected and well-intentioned friend, Robbie (the always excellent Simon Russell Beale). When Sassoon faces a tribunal of three older military men looking down at him with disdain, Lowden shows Sassoon’s barely contained ire. Maintaining an air of politeness, his body is constantly shifting in miniscule ways, as if fighting to get out of the constraints he finds himself in. His replies to their inquiries are sassy but just subtle enough, coupled with his privilege, to be permitted. It’s in the way Lowden puts emphasis on the consonants that you can feel Sassoon seething, wishing he were allowed to speak out but forced to rein it in for the people who love him.
He’s sent to a psychiatric hospital in Scotland to convalesce, and it’s here where Sassoon faces another struggle between his emotions and what he’s allowed to express. He falls in love with a man, but it’s a “love that dare not speak its name,” as he puts it. It’s all in meaningful glances, quiet companionship, and in the end, a lingering handshake. He finds something unexpected here, too: a wry psychiatrist, Dr. Rivers (a truly excellent Ben Daniels), with whom he can be open about his feelings and who teaches him an alternative way to flout or casually disrespect the rules of society. Having started his treatment just barely going through the motions of the military salute, resignedly offering to do whatever he’s asked to, he soon finds himself breaking down and sharing his fears with Dr. Rivers. The shot reverse-shots of their interactions at first add to the formality of the exchange that Sassoon expects, but when Dr. Rivers refuses to play by the rules, they feel looser, with each man taking more time to speak and think in the shot. Indeed, Dr. Rivers’s encouragement of Sassoon to be open with his feelings probably allows Sassoon to fall so hard for another patient, even if it’s not something he can act on.
After the war, Sassoon reinvents himself by using his biting wit as part of his charm, drawing others to him, but also to keep them at arm’s length — just like Rattigan’s Hester and Davies’s Emily did. He quickly becomes one of the Bright Young Things about town, going to artist parties, reciting poetry now and then, and quickly falls into an ill-advised relationship with singer-actor Ivor Novello (a hateful if one-note Jeremy Irvine). Whereas Hester’s lover, Freddy, at least had some redeeming qualities beyond his beauty and alongside his childish tantrums, Irvine’s Ivor offers nothing to like. It’s a bit of a mystery why Sassoon so quickly tries to fall into domestic bliss with someone who takes no care for the feelings of others — except that, like his sometimes cruel wit, picking Ivor is a way to ensure he can’t really be hurt, even if Sassoon claims to be in love.
Though Davies, a queer filmmaker, tends to make films that are queer-coded, Benediction is unabashedly his gayest film to date. Hester in The Deep Blue Sea was both Davies’s and the also-gay Rattigan’s avatar; meanwhile, Davies totally erased Emily Dickinson’s queerness in A Quiet Passion. Though almost no sex is shown in the film, Benediction is, to quote Executive Editor Orla Smith, Wild Nights with Sassoon. Indeed, one of its best qualities is the way that Davies creates a whole community of gay young men in London who slept around with each other, and whose gayness was an open secret. Before Davies even introduces us to Ivor Novello and his then-partner Glen Byam Shaw (an excellent Tom Blyth), whom he’ll quickly throw over for Sassoon, the blocking and body language immediately indicate they’re an item. Later, Sassoon’s unreciprocated body language toward Ivor, always turned toward him with casual affection, will indicate the same.
Given how much gayness has been coded but unexpressed both in Benediction and in Davies’s work more generally, it comes as a shock when we actually see Sassoon falling into bed with another man. That’s partly because of how quickly Davies cuts from a couple of shared come hither looks to the bedroom. But this cavalier attitude towards sex pervades the film. There’s a particularly excellent gag later in the film, about having sex in a gondola, which hinges on Lowden’s reading of the line “stability” as an admission of promiscuity.
Although Sassoon struggles to find an emotionally fulfilling romantic relationship, Benediction is refreshing in that we get to see him keep looking. In the film, he has two long-term romantic male partners — admittedly, both terrible, toxic people — and two near-misses that you wish had worked out. In turn, we see those men in other couplings at different times in their lives, which creates the feeling of a whole community, if small and necessarily incestuous, in which men were having sex with men, and it was totally fine. It’s a thing we know happened in the past, and yet something I’ve rarely seen put on film: the lack of on-screen sex in the film actually serves to normalise it. It also reminds us that it was always happening behind closed doors, even if everybody knew about it and talked about it.
After one of his callous beaus offhandedly suggests that promiscuity and lack of commitment are endemic to the gay community because everything happens so secretly, Sassoon begins to conclude that he simply won’t find love. Whether that’s true, or more linked to Sassoon’s deliberate choice of poor partners, is left somewhat open-ended. But Sassoon reinvents himself again, looking for comfort and companionship through creating a family rather than through romantic love: he gets married to a woman.
Throughout the film, Sassoon is haunted by nightmares of his time in the war, and his poems, even late in life, still reflect on these horrors. For a man who keeps reinventing himself, Davies leaves open-ended when exactly Sassoon’s life stopped, emotionally: when he left the battlefield, when he lost his first love, when he was beaten down by bad relationships, or when he threw in the towel and got married. The way Davies shoots the older Sassoon (Peter Capaldi, using all of his energy on his never-right accent), it’s as if he has been permanently seated in his chair for all thirty years of his marriage. He never moves, refuses to go anywhere, and given a moment of reflection, only feels sorry for himself for how unappreciated his work has been compared to his contemporaries. Did Sassoon just stop trying, or did he live in a world where trying couldn’t change anything? His late turn to Catholicism might suggest the latter.
In Lowden’s hands, Sassoon is a mass of boiling emotions forced to be kept at a simmer. He wants to protest the war, but is left to just make shifty eyes at the people inpower. He falls hard in love, but with men who don’t want his love. He writes passionately about the horrors of war, but is so unsentimental in a time before we even had words for PTSD that he was overlooked. He can’t figure out what’s possible for him, and sometimes, he eschews it out of self-protection. He is a man at war with himself, and Lowden constantly shows us his contradictory emotions: the vulnerable bashfulness of Sassoon at the beginning of a courtship, and the callous Sassoon who will watch another man get hurt in love knowing he’s the cause of it. Lowden nimbly moves between the scared and vulnerable Sassoon, to the angry but caged Sassoon, to the blithely acerbic Sassoon, without ever feeling like these are disconnected parts of his personality. He’s a man with a lot of feeling who hasn’t figured out how to unleash it, except perhaps until the very end of the film.
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