TIFF 2021 review: Benediction (Terence Davies)

“Benediction is a statement, maybe one about how art can and should be done in spite of the most horrible things.”

There are two films inside Terence Davies’ Benediction, so there shall be two parts of this text about it. One about Davies’ war film and how it painfully understands that there is no way to represent the battles, the heated political discussions, the departures of young men to the front, like cattle marching towards their own slaughter. There is no way – and there is no need – for the risk of giving some sort of grand narrative or granting dignity to something that is senseless, cruel, vile. It’s a risk not worth taking. So Davies’ screenplay based on the English soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon lets the dead speak the only way he knows how: through images, through the faces of those dead young men, through Sassoon’s poetry. The second film on the other hand, the one about the poet’s personal life and homosexuality, struggles to find some moments of affection in a life eternally marked by World War I, by the loss of his younger brother, and by the loss of his love, Wilfred Owen, who was sent to the trenches to die a week before the war ended. A life in search of an answer to the question, in the words of Sassoon himself, in his poem Disabled: “How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come / And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Benediction is first and foremost an anti-war film, as much as it is possible for a film to be anti-war. Through a series of real footage of dead and dismembered young bodies across the trenches of the war that was supposed to end all wars, Davies comments on how innocence was the price Europe and the world paid. The images are there, the bodies are there. Over one million men in England and its colonies alone had died, and for what? For power, for imperialism, for profit. This loss must be put on all of them, and also on the shoulders of people like Churchill and the monarchs who are named one by one. In this, Benediction soars because it understands what its muse wrote about. There is no glory in going to war. Neither were Sassoon’s poems about heroism, for they portray mutilation: “He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, / And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, / Legless, sewn short at elbow. Convalescence, But death replied: “I choose him.” So he went, / And there was silence in the summer night…”; they portray loss: “For death has made me wise and bitter and strong; / And I am rich in all that I have lost.” But above all he wrote about how such tragedies happened to men who “will spend a few sick years in institutes” and “noticed how the women’s eyes / Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.” Boys in their twenties giving their lives for men who don’t fight, as we see in a scene when, after leaving the army, Sassoon is interrogated by a military junta in order to avoid being court-martialed, and hears from one of his superiors, “Morality is a luxury we can afford only during peaceful times.

Here Benediction goes through a series of small episodes of Sassoon’s life that can all be linked to one of his many poems – beautifully narrated by Jack Lowden, whose voice and acting as the young poet emanate a softness so rare to find. While being read, they lead us to footage of the War that comes every time one might be seduced by the flamboyant lifestyle of the early 20th Century London elite. Davies finds in this juxtaposition a perfect way to not give in to nostalgia, even if it implies making his audience feel bad for doing so. In the words of the late, great Susan Sontag in her Regarding the Pain of Others, it is exactly because “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers” in a sense that “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. To that extent, it can be (for all our good intentions) an impertinent – if not inappropriate – response. To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a reflection on how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may – in ways we might prefer not to imagine – be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others, is a task for which the painful, stirring images supply only an initial spark.” That is what the greater film inside Benediction is about: using cinema as a spark to wake us from our lethargy, and Davies, more than anyone else, understands the power of images.

What about the troubled man behind those tragic words? Sassoon, like many men before and after him, contemporary to him and contemporary to us, suffered to find a way to deal with his homosexuality in a society that attempts to expunge this love that shall not be named at all costs. He married and had a son, and even destroyed his personal letters and writings about his love for Wilfred Owen and other men who crossed his life’s path and left a mark on him. By the end of his life – here portrayed by Peter Capaldi – he converted to Catholicism and ended his days in a search for the Truth, the one with a capital T. One that would end his desires, whether for men or for notoriety, for in a world that learned nothing from the First Great War, why should becoming a Sir or winning a Nobel Prize matter? But it did, and he wanted all those things, perhaps because he had already sacrificed too much for England by getting married and going to war.

One cannot praise Jack Lowden’s tenderness enough. There is a brief moment of beauty, after he is sent to a mental hospital for not following the orders of his superiors without questioning, in which he dances the tango with Wilfred Owen. It is the moment they fall in love with each other. A glimpse of a life that never could have been, whether Owen had stayed in hospital and not been considered fit for service, or if destiny remained unchanged and he got sent to die in a war that would end only a week after his sacrifice, for England would have stood in between them had Owen returned. All that remained from Owen were his poems, published and edited later by Sassoon, who wrote that “W’s death was an unhealed wound, and the ache of it has been with me ever since. I wanted him back – not his poems”; and some letters sent to “My dear Sassoon” and “Dearest of all Friends” – many of which ended up being burned together with Sassoon’s own letters. Here the second film within Benediction stumbles a bit, especially for being presented intertwined with the anti-war one that will be amongst Davies’ finest works. A highlight is when Lowden delivers his best acting in the final shot, in which Sassoon remembers all the death and horror. Owen, however, is given no more than a few scenes, and then when not digressing on his trauma from the War, Sassoon goes from one lover to the next, but there is never enough time for it to feel real. Owen is the one with less screen time, but perhaps thanks to Lowden’s and Matthew Tennyson’s chemistry is the only one that feels true. Even when Sassoon decides to marry a woman and do what he was supposed to it feels rushed, it feels disconnected to the flashforward of Sassoon in his final years (Capaldi) converting to Catholicism, or his bitterness in an encounter with a former lover, now both in their old age.

What I was left with was the certainty that Davies made a film about the tragedy of war and how art is a tool we have to show things, to say things many can’t or simply won’t. In a sense, Benediction is a statement, maybe one about how art can and should be done in spite of the most horrible things; or maybe a statement about how as hard as it might be, to create art implies that the artist in that brief moment is not fighting for life, even if they had done so; even if the artist is representing someone that might be. So, there’s a responsibility. I always think about Bataille claiming that literature is not useful because what is essential and true to men is not something that can be defined as useful or not. But it is exactly because it is not the same as feeling hunger, tiredness, pain, fear; our need for art shows something even bigger, an understanding that can address the human experience in its totality. The good and the bad and everything in between. Perhaps this is my quarrel with Benediction; Sassoon and Owen’s love story, and that particular experience of a double life, very familiar to every gay man for it is also a war in itself, deserved more screen time. So I will finish using Sappho’s words, “Someone, I tell you, in another time will remember us”; as I remember Sassoon, as I remember Owen, as they remembered Wilde, as Wilde remembered others.

Benediction (Terence Davies)