Handsomely designed and lavishly shot, the latest film from writer and director Terence Davies (A Quiet Passion, Deep Blue Sea) is a feast of wanting. There’s an immediate old fashioned flare to the film, which boasts textured production and rich coloring as well as innovative uses of archival black and white footage which doesn’t just act as a segue between scenes to indicate the passage of time, as so many other films are want to do, but as a means to continually demonstrate our protagonist’s state of mind which lingers on the past.
Based on the real-life of poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) who was best known for his scathing poems based on the horrors of trench life in World War I, refuting the need for performative, nationalist romanticism, Davies works wonders in capturing the intrinsic loneliness of the man. The man we meet at the start of the film, one who protests in the face of a country that he believes to be deliberately prolonging the war and therefore the suffering of his fellow soldiers, is almost shockingly different from the man we meet towards the end of his life, played by Peter Capaldi, who has become embittered and apathetic about how he conducts his day to day. I say almost because Davies takes pains to lay out how Sassoon was let down by life and his pursuit of love. His first film to explicitly portray the life of a gay man, much of Benediction is spent in conversations between Sassoon and his multiple relationships—the good, bad, the one that almost was, and the one that could never be.
Lowden is immediately captivating, imbuing Sassoon with an easy charisma that is indicative of why he’d go on to draw so many people to him, both as lovers and friends—sometimes both. While the introduction of his character is of the standard British intellectual, he soon reveals layers of himself that are painfully vulnerable, sometimes naive and curious, and enraged by the world surrounding him. It’s a tremendous performance with a haunting last shot that displays the range of grief, rage, and resentment that his sturdy upper lip has masked for so much of the film’s runtime.
Few directors are as good at setting a tone and place as Davies and fewer still luxuriate in his level of attention to detail. His precision extends itself to the silence in the film. It isn’t so much utilized to draw sequences out but to give the thoughts and the conversations between characters room to breathe.
Scenes between Lowden and Ben Rivers, who plays Dr. Rivers, while at his stay in the hospital, are magnetic. So much so that, by the time we’ve moved on to another stage in his life, we’re still missing the quiet camaraderie shared by two men who considered themselves to be “anomalies.” In speaking to one another, finding each other to be kindred souls, Sassoon speaks about how he is “unable to take risks—it’s the hero in me” in regards to his attraction to men. It’s the potential for romance, rather than the action of it, in the hospital as well between Sassoon and fellow soldier Wilfred (Matthew Tennyson) that speaks so clearly to viewers, even in the muscular restraint of their shared scenes. Much emphasis is put on the handshake between two people in Benediction as we see this the most in a touching goodbye between two men who saw themselves as “slow to love” in an era where they were required to live in the shadows. The humanity and kindness shared between characters in these earlier moments are extraordinary.
Unfortunately for the magnificent first half, the second begins to lose its way as we track too many unnecessary asides that detract from the power of what’s already been built. As is the case in many films about real people from history, there’s a clear want to tell as much of the figure’s story as possible, even when, in this case, less would’ve been more. While we need to see the deterioration of some of his relationships to understand the cold man we’re left with, there were sequences between him and his would-be wife that might’ve been cut or a scene with his once partner Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) that continually drags out an already deflated relationship.
Regardless of the overindulgent script and runtime that extends far past the point of when it would’ve been most impactful, the film and its ruminations on loneliness and what it means to find a sense of purpose or legacy in life are immensely powerful. As intimate a character study as they come and bolstered by what should be a star-making performance from Lowden, Benediction finds its heart in connections made and lost through life and what story each person leaves behind.