TORONTO – There’s something intoxicating when an established filmmaker unexpectedly challenges themselves creatively with a new project. Acclaimed writer and director Terence Davies does just that with his latest endeavor, “Benediction,” a biopic about the life of the celebrated poet Sigfried Sassoon that debuted at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival this past weekend. Even more impressive is how Davies pushes complacency aside on his eighth narrative film and at a still spry 75-years-old.
Sassoon (captivatingly portrayed in his younger years by Jack Lowden) is lauded as one of the great British poets of World War I, and Davies spends a good deal of the film focusing on how his time serving in the military shaped the rest of his life. He accomplishes this by editing black and white archival footage of the conflict, usually including a narration of Davies’ prose alongside traditional narrative scenes. Whether this was due to budgetary constraints or a genuine artistic choice is unclear, but in many ways, it allows the film to break free of the expectations of the genre. Even if a straightforward telling of Sassoon’s life would be genuinely fascinating, this choice puts the picture a step closer to film art than, say, a traditional period piece.
After being awarded the Silver Cross for his valor on the battlefield, Sassoon composed a manifesto championing an end to a war he increasingly saw as unjust. As you might expect, his superiors were not pleased, and he could have been court-martialed for his action. Instead, he was deemed unfit for service sent to a war hospital in Scotland for psychiatric care. What could have been another sort of hell for Sassoon turns into heaven as he finds a doctor who is understanding of his gay predilections and experiences the first real gay love affair of his life. He sparks with another patient, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who also happens to be a poet. However, their love is short-lived and tragic as Owen is sent back to the front, only to be killed in battle a week later.
Davies subsequently explores Sassoon’s love affairs in the ’20s and ’30s. There was the actor and musical composer Ivor Novello (played with catty queen relish by Jeremy Irvine) and Ivor’s ex, Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth, subtly charming), who was something of a lost opportunity. But the affair that seemed to haunt him the most was Stephen Tenant (a wonderfully decadent Calam Lynch). A failed relationship, seemingly on Tenant’s part that Sassoon resents for decades.
Surprising his inner circle, Sassoon eventually finds companionship with Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), a female friend who seduces him even though she’s aware of his homosexual affairs. They eventually marry and have a child. Davies then fast forwards to the ’60s, where an obviously more bitter Sassoon (played by Peter Capaldi) and a heartbroken Hester (Gemma Jones) separate. Despite a number of autobiographical works by Sassoon, Davies plays a little bit with history here. He insinuates that Sassoon was unhappy in these later years, likely because he married a woman and is looking for salvation by converting to Catholicism (something his younger self could likely never imagine happening). Key details are missing, and despite Capaldi’s fine work, it’s the one aspect of the film that doesn’t seem to resonate with the rest of the narrative.
Despite LGBTQ+ themes being explored in his earlier works, “Benediction” is the queerest film the publicly gay Davies has made to date. Considering how rarely gay relationships in this period are explored, it’s a welcome addition to the director’s cinematic legacy. And when “Benediction” is most compelling, Davies is chronicling Sassoon’s “shadow gay life” before his marriage. It’s an almost temporary respite from the horrific memories of the Great War, which are evident in his prose. The film falters by simply trying to document so much of his story, which appears difficult to accomplish in even a 2 hour and 17-minute runtime. Despite Davis’ lyrical direction, the obvious gaps in the screenplay provide too many holes for what strives to be a definitive portrait of an exceptional talent. A talent that can’t be accurately painted. On this canvas, anyway. [B-/C+]