Few living filmmakers put as much of themselves on screen as Terence Davies. Never mind that the Liverpudlian auteur has only made one explicitly self-referential feature: His masterful documentary Of Time and the City (2008), a film that discovered universal truths in the sooty specifics of the director’s elegiac childhood remembrances. Whether he’s scripting semi-autobiographical original stories (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The Long Day Closes) or adapting the work of literary and theatrical luminaries (The House of Mirth, The Deep Blue Sea, Sunset Song), Davies always seems to be searching for a deep, lyrical ache that reverberates with his own disconsolate experiences. As with Ingmar Bergman, his collected works feel like a bitter conversation between a haunted poet and the God he long ago abandoned.
Indeed, Davies’ films reveal an artist smitten with the delicate but profound magic of poetry, and its power to convey that which seems ineffable. (A trait that written verse arguably shares with cinema.) In Of Time and the City, the director’s own words mingle with those of Shelley, Houseman, and Eliot, pinning the film’s wistful mood with heart-stirring precision. His most recent feature, A Quiet Passion (2016), plucked no less a wordsmith than Emily Dickinson from the starchy confines of the English-language canon, giving trembling expression to the agony and ecstasy of her inner world.
The filmmaker returns to the life of a celebrated literary figure with his new film Benediction, a portrait of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Although not as well known as Dickinson, Sassoon was among the most prominent of the English poets to emerge from the carnage of the Great War. Despite his relatively genteel upbringing – though disinherited, he was descended from wealthy merchants and renowned sculptors – Sassoon’s story plainly resonated with the working-class Davies, who has labored for five years to bring it to the screen. Like the filmmaker, the poet was a gay lapsed Catholic, forever vexed by his early experiences and increasingly disgusted with the ugliness and cruelty of the world.
Given that Davies has long regarded his own sexuality with more than a little self-pity and self-loathing, it is startling how frankly Benediction embraces its queerness. This is as much a film about the distinctive hardships of being a semi-closeted gay man in Interwar Britain as it is about the ecstatic truth of poetry or the horrors of mechanized warfare. In his inimitable way, however, Davies uncovers the ecumenical pain in the particulars of Sassoon’s emotional and spiritual tribulations. The poet’s lifelong evolution from a witty, soulful man of conscience played by Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) to a dour, haunted misanthrope played by Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) is framed as a tragedy, but also sadly understandable to anyone living in this armed madhouse called Planet Earth.
Skipping over the early years that Sassoon recounted in his first autobiographical novel, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Davies’ film picks up the story of the poet’s life in 1917. At this point, Sassoon is already a decorated army officer and a poet of some small renown, but the slaughter he has witnessed on the Western Front – as well as the dishonesty and fecklessness that he perceives in Britain’s political leadership – pushes him to a moral crisis. With the support of art dealer and Oscar Wilde confidant Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), Sassoon pens an eloquent public declaration, outlining his reasons for refusing to return to active duty. Rather than court-martial the young officer, the military leadership instead hustles him off to a war hospital in Scotland, where he is treated for shell shock.
There, he encounters a sympathetic doctor (Ben Daniels) who understands the challenges of living with the “love that dare not speak its name.” Sassoon also meets fellow patient and war poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), igniting a brief but intense connection that refines both of their literary voices. Though never consummated physically and cut short by Owen’s eventual return to the front, the relationship proves pivotal for Sassoon, coloring his romantic affairs and his artistic ambitions. Supported after the war by editing gigs and his friends among the British aristocracy, Sassoon tumbles in and out of relationships with a succession of vain and beautiful men, including Welsh stage actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), English actor and director Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), and libertine Scottish socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch).
The latter proves particularly meaningful and troublesome for the poet, but Sassoon never seems completely comfortable navigating Interwar Britain’s decadent and bohemian gay subculture. He is too jealous, too melancholy, and too haunted by the doomed battalions that march through his nightmares. Davies provides glimpses of these phantoms via archival footage of the Great War, which encroach into the narrative in the same way that flashes of mud-caked horror intrude ineluctably on Sassoon’s own thoughts. When the poet eventually makes plans to marry a bright, sweet-natured acquaintance named Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), it seems to be less about public decorum than pairing off with someone who doesn’t remind him of the dead boys still lying in the trenches at Ypres.
Although Benediction is broadly chronological, Davies provides a peek at Sassoon’s future fate early in the film: Sullen and irritable in his dotage, the seventysomething poet (Capaldi) explains to his incredulous adult son (Richard Goulding) that he is returning to the Catholic Church, a grasp at something lasting in a world where everything crumbles. Here the filmmaker creates a pointed dissonance between this cantankerous old man and the fresh-faced idealist he once was, illustrating the ruin that five decades of unresolved trauma, survivor’s guilt, and romantic resentment will wreak on a man’s soul. (One thinks of one of Sassoon’s angriest war poems, “Suicide in Trenches,” in which the 31-year-old soldier spits an elderly veteran’s weary retort at jingoistic British civilians: “Sneak home and prey you’ll never know/The hell where youth and laughter go.”)
Watching a bright but troubled young poet gradually curdle into a sour old coot is admittedly a dismal basis for a biopic, but Davies embraces the dolefulness of the material with the clear-eyed empathy of a kindred spirit. This goes beyond the tempestuous specifics of Sassoon’s romantic relationships, which are presented in a melodramatic key that heightens the viewer’s secondhand embarrassment for the poet and his poor taste in men. (Irvine’s Novello in particular comes off as an irredeemably narcissistic and vicious asshole.) Davies draws a line between the ephemerality of romantic infatuation and the impermanence of all things: youth, innocence, honor, glory, friendship. When he is summarily discarded for the umpteenth time thanks to a lover’s wandering eye, Sassoon may not have been thinking of the Military Cross ribbon he tossed into the River Mersey in a pique, but the viewer might well make the connection.
Most vitally, the filmmaker recognizes the essential role that art plays in humanity’s inner life, in our construction of memory, identity, and meaning. Davies vividly conveyed this truism in Distant Voices, Still Lives by tightly entwining the film’s kitchen-sink nostalgia with the pop, jazz, and classical tunes that served as the soundtrack to his Kensington childhood. Here the notion takes on a more cathartic expression: war poetry as a kind of bloodletting of the soul, extracting the acrid madness of the human experience and thereby rendering it endurable, if only a little. It’s a realist’s sentiment, one in which art represents not salvation, but a surgical incision through which poisoned plasma flows. Such imagery crops up in the grim poem that Davies, ever the mordant drag, saves for the film’s coda. It is not one of Sassoon’s but Owen’s, in which a maimed and forgotten soldier reflects on the injury that changed his life: “He's lost his colour very far from here,/Pour it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,/And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race,/And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.”
Benediction opens in select local theaters on June 3.