Inspired by the life of WWI-era British poet Siegfried Sassoon, the latest film from writer/director Terence Davies is a swooning exploration of redemption, regret, privilege, and love set in a time before homosexuality was legalized in the United Kingdom. Like many of Davies’ films, “Benediction” examines the lingering trauma of war and how once it seeps into your life it never leaves.
Although a decorated officer for his bravery on the Western Front, Siegfried Sassoon was an outspoken critic of his government’s continuation of WWI, having seen the senseless slaughter wrought first hand during his time in the trenches. His poetry described the horrors of trench warfare while also satirizing those who perpetuated what he felt was a jingoism-fueled war. His dissent eventually landed him a stint in a military psychiatric hospital where he formed a close bond with fellow war poet Wilfred Owen.
“Benediction” intercuts archival footage of the war as we follow Sassoon (played at different ages by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi) through many important emotionally charged moments in his turbulent life. From doomed love affairs with the likes of Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) to his later conversion to Catholicism, Davies excavates the sorrows and the joys of Sassoon’s life to paint a portrait of a complex man forever searching for something to fill an unfillable void.
RogerEbert.com spoke to Davies over Zoom about Sassoon’s search for redemption, the loneliness of being an observer, and the importance of casting just the right actor in a role.
It was not so much portraying that as I remember, in this country, when homosexuality was a criminal offense, and seeing films like “Victim.” It was a really important film because it helped change the law. But when you’ve grown up with it being a criminal offense, even though you’ve not done anything, and that coupled with being Catholic, made it much, much harder. What has happened, I think, since then, there’s been a much wider acceptance of homosexual all sorts of things. But I do think sometimes it’s certainly skin deep. But at least the law was changed. At least you’re not seen as corruptive, or in any way corrupt, because we didn’t do anything to anybody. So it, you don’t really have to go into that with the actors, because they already know it. The great thing with really, really good actors, is that, like a virtuosi who plays a violin or a piano, you just say one thing, and they do it. You think: how did they get it that quickly? Astonishing. That was the most revelatory. That they get it so quickly.
What do you think Sassoon was looking for in Catholicism so late in life?
He wanted redemption, and nothing can give you that. Certainly, religion can’t. You have to find that within yourself, or you don’t find it at all. But I think that’s what he was looking for. And of all the religions to wander into, the most guilt ridden is certainly a strange choice.
What kind of redemption do you think he was seeking?
I think in a sort of odd way, to be forgiven, but not for anything specific. Something wider. He did survive the First World War. Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen didn’t. He saw, to a certain extent, his work eclipsed by them, because death does confer on you some kind of special honor. I think that hurt him. But when you’re looking for something that will balm your soul, would you ever find it? I don’t think anybody does. You either have that or you don’t. I’ve been looking for it for 76 years now and I’ve never found it.