A sense of failure – moral, intellectual, physical – pervades Benediction, Terence Davies’ biopic of the World War I poet (and survivor) Siegfried Sassoon. The older Sassoon attempts solace through Catholicism as his son mocks that he can find the same discipline in dressage. The younger Sassoon rages as he is sent to hospital, his attempts at anti-war prominence (and a probable court-marshall, and an even more probable death) thwarted. He dances with Wilfred Owen, offering the younger poet advice on his writing but nothing more than hollow support when he is shipped back to the front, to die a week before the Armistice. Decades later, he barely recognises old friends, wife, or son in the walls of memories built around him. 

Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi are a strange pairing as the younger and elder, but their performances are seamlessly matched (even if one CGI moment is not). Lowden captures the poet’s quiet insolence and exuberant escapes, letting bitterness creep in as life somehow senselessly goes on. Capaldi is a shell of Sassoon’s former self, hollowed by survival through convention. 

Davies’ script evokes the era’s upper-class flippancy, where feelings were expressed in euphemisms and the pursuit of beauty became an escape from overwhelming nihilism. Not every statement or scene is subtle. Some lines are unbearably clever (a competition of musical tastes), some unbearably tender (Sassoon’s tacit agreement with his fiancée over his homosexuality). When the script manages both at once – notably in the early hospital portions, where joy and escape and impending, overwhelming defeat lie ahead – the film reaches sublimity. 

Benediction relishes its time and place, merging timelines as it merges archival and fictional footage. Despite languorous pacing, any risk of disjointed episodes is dispelled by the unification of Lowden’s and Capaldi’s performances. This is a whole life rendered in tragic beauty.



CAST: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Gemma Jones

DIRECTOR: Terence Davies

WRITER: Terence Davies

SYNOPSIS: A time-hopping biopic of Siegfried Sassoon – war poet, cultural critic, and fractured family man – and his tragedies monumental and mundane.