Benediction is the story of English poet, writer and soldier Siegfried Sassoon. He was decorated for bravery on the Western Front, and went on to become one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry vividly described the horrors of the trenches while satirizing the patriotic pretensions that Sassoon believed were responsible for a fueling the war. His was a dissenting voice, protesting against the continuation of the war with his Soldier’s Declaration of 1917, which got him committed to the psychiatric ward of a military hospital. He married because he craved a child (and had one), but also had a string of same-sex affairs. He befriended a priest, converted to catholicism, and joined the Ghost Club, a paranormal investigation organization for ghosts and hauntings. I guess what I’m trying to say is: he was an interesting fellow. But you’d never know it from Benediction.
Peter Capaldi and Jack Lowden portray Sassoon at different stages of his life, both with skill. But director Terence Davies’ fondness for too-long shots of wind rustling leaves as opera plays is trying, and tiring, and no substitution for actual mood or atmosphere. It feels like filler.
Interspersed with real vintage war footage for context, Sassoon’s poems are narrated and layered on top of representative images. It’s cheesy, and reads more like a teenage girl’s diary. Terrible effects and amateurish green screen work add to the unprofessional feel of the film, which is hard to forgive, and harder still to sit through. The story isn’t particularly complex, but it’s still hard to keep everyone straight when all these underfed pasty types all look the same.
It’s a sad film, somber almost to a fault, but I could live with that. Davies seems to have something interesting to say about about time, using with parallels narratives, but some of his artistic choices were like taking a hose’s spray to the face. Thrown unceremoniously more than once from the bubble of the film, I found it difficult to get back in, not because it was impenetrable, but because I wasn’t sufficiently motivated. Failure is the theme to which the film often returned, but for me it wasn’t just part of the story, it was inherent in the execution as well.
Benediction is, nevertheless, an official selection of the 2021 TIFF.