You might remember Scottish actor Jack Lowden from the Christopher Nolan 2017 film, “Dunkirk,” and in “Benediction,” he plunged into the war again, this time, though, it is World War I and the social war against gay men.
“Benediction” is about poet and writer Siegfried Sasson (1886-1967) who received medals for fighting on the Western Front but also protested the continuation of the war in his 1917 “Soldier’s Declaration.”
In Terence Davies’ “Benediction,” former Doctor Who Peter Capaldi plays the older and Jack Lowden plays the younger Sassoon as the film juxtaposes photos of the World War I with poetry.
Davies both wrote and directed this film and there’s a curious stillness not usually associated with war, but as you hear the narration of the poetry you can appreciate both the beauty of the words incongruously set against the hideous effects of war.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
Originally, I thought this was one of Sassoon’s poems, but not find it is A.E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad 35: On the Idle Hill of Summer.”
After being given a Military Cross (1916), he protested the war in 1917, partially out of grief over his friend David Cuthbert Thomas’ death (1895-1916). Sassoon’s protest against the war doesn’t result in a court martial. Brought before a panel of officers, he is interrogated. When asked, “Are you pro-German?” he languidly replies, “No, I am pro-human.”
Sassoon was sentenced to a military psychiatric care for brought him together with Wilfred Owen (1893-1918). During their convalescence, they would be involved in a magazine called “The Hydra”: Owen as the editor and Sassoon as a contributor of poetry. The title references the hospital’s (Craiglockhart War Hospital) involvement with hydrotherapy (the water cure) in pre-war times. They both would return to the battlefields, but only Sassoon would survive.
According to this film, Sassoon’s homosexuality was noticed during his military service (“The spectacle of men dancing with men is never palatable.”) Yet he did find sympathetic ears and, after Owen, he would find lovers, marry a woman and have a son. His wife and he grew distant, but he remained close with his son.
The beauty of the poetry against the horror of the wars is what raises this film as well as the poignant ache for the many who lost their lives and the men (and women) who had to live out their lives in shame and in hiding for their supposedly crimes against civilized society. “Benediction” is a grim reminder of the restrictions people used to live under and how masculinity was once defined in the UK.
The sense of stillness and almost stagnation in Terence Davies’ “Benediction,” allows the poetic passages to really resonate. Capaldi’s older Sassoon is brittle and with his adult son George (Richard Goulding), at times curmudgeonly, while Lowden’s young Sassoon provides a sense of discovery, courageous but well-mannered rebellion, disappointment and, eventually, acceptance of social demands in order to become a father.
As someone who did not major in poetry and particularly British poetry, I surely missed some of the meaning packed within this film so I recommend reading some of Sassoon’s poetry before viewing the film, perhaps through the Poetry Foundation. As I noted above, that won’t fully help one because some of the passages may be from other notable poets from that time. In the future, some expert on British poetry or wartime poets will deconstruct this film and provide a welcome guide for viewers.
For those who, like myself, aren’t Catholic, a benediction is a service by which a congregation is blessed with the Blessed Sacrament in a Roman Catholic Church or as Merriam-Webster defines it:
In “Benediction,” Davies’ has Sassoon looking for salvation and trying to understand the enigma of other people but also introduces viewers to war poetry as a reminder of what war really was and is.
“Benediction” made its world premiere on 12 September 2021 at the Toronto International Film Festival.