Movie review: Benediction - an anthem for the doomed youth of the First World War

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Movie Review: Benediction - An Anthem For The Doomed Youth Of The First World War Movie Review: Benediction - An Anthem For The Doomed Youth Of The First World War
Kate Phillips as Hester Gatty and Jack Lowden as Siegfried Sassoon. Photo/Laurence Cendrowicz.
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Damon Smith

Celebrated Liverpudlian writer-director Terence Davies has spoken openly about a fractious relationship with his sexuality, once declaring in a newspaper interview that being gay had ruined his life and he would go to his grave detesting that unchangeable facet of his being.

This inner turmoil is reflected on screen in an artfully composed new picture.

Benediction is an anthem for the doomed youth of the First World War as seen through the eyes of one of England’s great poets, Siegfried Sassoon, who conducted covert relationships with men before he married Hester Gatty in 1933 and raised a son.

Davies’ melancholic character study ricochets, jarringly, between Sassoon in idealistic, closeted youth (played by Jack Lowden) and embittered married life (an acid-tongued Peter Capaldi), loosely stitching together these two timelines with archive material from the Great War and a prosaic voiceover of excerpts from Sassoon’s letters and verse.

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Combative dialogue is polished to a lustre as characters trade barbs with glee.

The Death Bed

Some of the film’s best scenes cut back and forth between two actors volleying disdain across a drawing room or dinner table, neither willing to concede until blood has been spilt.

Pacing is deliberately sedate, affording adequate time for Davies’ trademark stylistic flourishes that gently and slowly wash life away, to echo the words of Sassoon’s poem The Death Bed.

As a soldier, Siegfried Sassoon (Lowden) is decorated for bravery but the death of his brother Hamo in 1915 in Gallipoli lights the fuse on a deep-rooted disillusion with the war.

He openly disobeys orders and becomes a vociferous critic of the government’s continuation of the conflict, risking a court marital that would besmirch the family name.

Psychiatric evaluation

In 1917, Sassoon is transferred to Craiglockhart War Hospital for psychiatric evaluation under Dr Rivers (Ben Daniels).

He meets and mentors fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who is inspired to pen some of his most famous work including Disabled.

Once the treatment is complete, Sassoon returns to London with good friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) and becomes romantically entangled with figures from the capital’s glittering literary and theatre scene including Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) and Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth).

Sassoon’s mother (Geraldine James) counsels against a dalliance with Novello – “He’s amusing but unpleasant. It’s his eyes, I think. They’re cruel” – but her son is grimly consigned to a path of disappointment, denial and self-loathing.

Benediction wallows in Sassoon’s misery, powerfully conveyed by Lowden’s committed lead performance, but the fractured chronological structure is a distraction.

Scenes between the older Sassoon, his wife (Gemma Jones) and grown-up son (Richard Goulding) are the real war of attrition here and our fighting spirit wanes significantly before the final victory march. - PA

(12A, 137 mins) Drama/Romance/War. Jack Lowden, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Simon Russell Beale, Tom Blyth, Matthew Tennyson, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Peter Capaldi, Gemma Jones, Richard Goulding, Ben Daniels. Director: Terence Davies.

Released in Ireland: May 20th

Our rating: 7/10

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