Still of Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in Benediction

Film Review: Benediction

Film Reviews

Director: Terence Davies

Emu Films and BBC Film
In Theaters: 06.10

Marketability tends to go before quality in the film industry, and Benediction, Writer-Director Terence Davies’ new film about the great war poet Seigfried Sassoon, is a perfect example. It won’t reach even a third of the audience of Bohemian Rhapsody or Rocketman, despite their similarities. All three are biopics centered around an artist struggling with acceptance and loneliness while coming to terms with his sexuality, and for my money, Benediction is easily the best.

Benediction follows Sassoon (Jack Lowden, Fighting With My Family, Slow Horses) from his years as a soldier in World War I throughout his turbulent life afterwards with occasional cutaways to his twilight years, where Sassoon is portrayed by Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who). Sassoon survives the war and is decorated for bravery, though his outspoken criticism of the British government and their handling of the conflict makes him a controversial figure. Sassoon lives a complex life in the years that follows— he’s revered as an artist who shares a piece of his soul with the world, yet he must hide the truth of who he is as he navigates a tumultuous series of doomed love affairs with other men throughout the 1920s. Though Sassoon tries to find a sense of normalcy and belonging in the national peacetime,the war within himself is almost as harsh and unforgiving as the traumas of the battlefields of France that he can never forget.

Benediction is an exceptionally well-acted and polished film filled with melancholy beauty, with many of Sassoon’s poems peppered throughout much the same way that the songs of Queen and Elton John were in the aforementioned films. While Benediction has a more leisurely sense of pacing than those biopics and is certainly less wildly melodramatic, it has a better script than either one and a central performance that is allowed to fully focus on acting rather than over-the-top mimicry. Lowden and Capaldi are captivating, and Davies’ dialogue is crisp and intelligent, equally effective whether it’s capturing tenderness, introspection or acerbic wit. 

Benediction is not meant to be a happy story, and it tends to favor the darker chapters of our protagonist’s life. When it comes to portraying matters of the heart, however, Sassoon’s tender relationship with fellow war poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson, Pride) is barely explored, with Davies instead focusing on Sassoon’s romances with the emotionally abusive Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine, War Horse) and Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch, Mrs. Wilson). While Sassoon’s closeness with Owen has been chronicled before (most famously in the play Not About Heroes) and the unhappy times are more relevant to the story that Davies is trying to tell, I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on the heartfelt connection between these two brilliant men. There’s also a disappointing feeling of distance from the subject—a frequent pitfall of the biopic formula—often making the audience an outsider looking in rather than making us feel actively involved. If the the lack of manipulative, warm, fuzzy and false emotions is one of the major strengths of Benediction, too few moments of genuine emotion are its biggest weakness. 

Still, there’s much to admire and the best elements of Benediction easily carry it through the weaker moments. As a long admirer of the voices that Sassoon and Owen brought to the countless thousands lost in France, I really hope that people will see the film. –Patrick Gibbs

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