Benediction: exploring a war poet's politics and sexuality

Screening at Showroom Cinema from Friday is Benediction, which premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. The second film in director Terence Davies’ career, it tells the story of war poet Siegfried Sassoon and follows 2016’s A Quiet Passion. Davies has quickly earned a reputation for highlighting inner turmoil in his films, and Benediction isn’t an exception. 

Starring both Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi as Sassoon, Benediction follows the post-war trials and tribulations of his famous opposition to conflict and his self-repression as a homosexual man at a time when being gay in England was illegal.  

Sassoon was a writer and soldier who received the Military Cross for gallantry in recognition of his efforts fighting in the First World War. Returning from service Sassoon wrote the poem ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, which expressed his conscientious objection, and was published in 1917. The piece described the hell of the trenches and was controversially read before the House of Commons. It is now regarded as one of the strongest anti-war statements of its day. Throughout his film, Davies reinforces the poem’s anti-war stance by including archival First World War footage and grim clinical photographs. 

Due to Sassoon’s status and popularity, he was highly regarded by the elite and so was given grace and avoided a court martial sentencing for his outspoken views. Instead, he was deemed mentally unwell taken to Craiglockhart War Hospital to be treated for ‘shell shock’. Davies uses this chain of events to highlight the disparity in the treatment of veterans of varying social class.  

The scope of Benediction also covers Sassoon’s personal life as well as his military and political views. 

During Sassoon’s lifetime queer individuals were forced by society to conceal their sexuality and often struggled with personal identity as a result. Benediction encapsulates the complexity of Sassoon’s desires and his struggles to act upon them. Large portions of the film are dedicated to following Sassoon’s affairs with Ivor Norvello (Jeremy Irvine) and Stephen Tenant (Calam Lynch). Yet there is a stark contrast between this level of screen time and the level of intimacy depicted. Selectively omitted by Davies, any affection is reduced to lingering handshakes and opportunistic glances, reflecting Sassoon’s stifled self-expression and feelings of a life half-lived.  

Later in the film, Peter Capaldi plays an older Sassoon. His performance encapsulates the development of his character into a bitter older figure – a transformation that is captured in a revealing CGI scene which shows him shrinking him under the weight of his repression.  

A benediction is a short blessing spoken at the end of a religious service, which calls for divine guidance. Towards the film’s end, Sassoon turns to religion not because he has found God but because he thinks it will prolong his life and the memories of the men he encountered along the way. Davies’ film is a heart-breaking telling of Sassoon’s complex struggles and painful self-scrutiny at the hand of a society he bravely served. 

Benediction is screening at Showroom Cinema from Friday 20th May. Tickets are on sale now

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