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18 May 2022

Terence Davies’s Benediction is a perfect portrait of an outsider

In this new biopic of the wartime poet Siegfried Sassoon, Davies beautifully renders, in quasi-autobiography, a life unredeemed.

By David Sexton

All the best work of Terence Davies, considered by many to be Britain’s greatest living filmmaker, is autobiographical. His wonderful first feature, Distant Voices, Still Lives of 1988, is intensely faithful to his memories of family life in Liverpool, the youngest of ten children in a working-class Catholic family. The BFI DVD of this masterpiece includes Davies’s excited commentary on each scene – so moved to see his own images, affirming their truth, excusing even the smallest alteration as “poetic license”.

The Long Day Closes, about a shy, imaginative 12-year-old boy growing up in the mid-Fifties, followed in 1992. Davies has since made several literary adaptations and the extraordinary collage-documentary about Liverpool, Of Time and the City.

His last film, A Quiet Passion, was an intimate biopic about the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), filmed in a recreation of her Amherst home as an interior piece. Davies, who defines himself as an outsider – “I’m not a participant in life”, he says simply – identified with the subject deeply, saying, “In a sense, the Emily Dickinson film is my most autobiographical”.

Now here’s Benediction, a biopic of another poet with whom he identifies, Siegfried Sassoon. It appears, however, that the subject was suggested to him by the CEO of the BFI, Ben Roberts. Initially, Davies knew little about Sassoon (not that he was gay, or a Catholic convert even) but rapidly realised how much affinity he felt for him, above all for his lifelong search for redemption, “which never comes”, says Davies, “because you can’t find redemption in anyone or anything. You have to find it in yourself.” Or not.

Benediction opens with the heroic epoch of Sassoon’s life, his courageous “Soldier’s Declaration” of 1917, in which he publicly denounced the conduct of the war. Having won the MC for conspicuous gallantry at the Front, Sassoon (played as a young man by tough-looking Jack Lowden) is not court-martialled but sent to military hospital in Edinburgh. There he is sympathetically treated and meets a soulmate, Wilfred Owen (endearing Matthew Tennyson), whose poetry he influences for the better, in the film’s best scenes. But their relationship is unconsummated.

[See also: Michelle Yeoh flits between universes in the hyperactive Everything Everywhere All at Once]

Already the frustration of his life has been foreshadowed, the film proceeding associatively, rather than chronologically. Sat in a church, the young Sassoon morphs into his older self (Peter Capaldi). “Why Catholicism, father?” his son George asks. “Something permanent, unchanging,” Sassoon replies, hopelessly. “You can get that from dressage but without the guilt,” retorts George (sub-Wildean pertnesses is always a feature of Davies’s dialogue).

After the war, Sassoon, until then sexually reserved but now guided by genial Wilde-supporter Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), seeks fulfilment in high society and gay affairs. Ivor Novello (pretty Jeremy Irvine) soon proves a prize bitch, sneering “If you want fidelity, Siegfried, buy a pet” as he dumps him.

Benediction has the most overtly gay subject matter in Davies’s work but it is hardly celebratory. Davies has said that he found his brief experience of the gay scene appalling, “sexually venal, cruel, narcissistic” – and that’s how he shows it here. He is no more in favour of heterosexual family life, though. Siegfried is targeted for marriage by the heiress Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips when young, Gemma Jones when older). “You must redeem my life for me,” he tells her, on tying the knot.

In reality, Siegfried and Hester separated after 14 years, but Davies keeps them miserably locked together into old age in depressing suburbia. Actually, after inheriting a fortune, in 1933 Sassoon bought a 55-room pile with 220 acres of park in Wiltshire, and lived there until his death in 1967, but this doesn’t fit Davies’s scenario. Nor does he honour that, according to Sassoon’s biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson, “Catholicism ensured that the last six years of Sassoon’s life were the happiest”. The film ends with a long shot of the old Sassoon, slumped on a bench, morphing back to his uniformed younger self, sobbing after a recital of Owen’s poem “Disabled”, while Vaughan Williams’ yearning Pastoral Symphony plays.

Asked “Why do you hate the modern world, father?”, Sassoon says: “Because it is younger than I am.” Davies, now 76, has never made a film set after 1955 and freely says he’s afraid of the modern world. Benediction, once again so beautifully filmed, so restrained and tactful in its visual world, is nothing less than a perfected statement of a life unredeemed.

“Benediction” is in cinemas now

[See also: The new Downton Abbey film has luxurious sets, costumes and meals – but the real draw is Maggie Smith]

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato