By Meghana Krishnamurthy, Third Year, Film and Television
Siegfried Sassoon was an infamous wartime poet, not for his verses of bravado and national morale but rather for his poems which consciously exposed the realities and tragedies of the First World War. His poems often communicated conscientious objection, which landed him in conflicts with his superiors and this is exactly what Benediction begins with.
in an attempt to chronicle the life of Sassoon’s lasting memories and trauma of his time as a gay soldier, director Terrence Davies explores his life in a way unconventional to traditional biopics about artists or geniuses. The audience is never subject to his creative process, but instead only the fruits of his labour as his poems are often read in narration against the vaguely documentary-style backdrop of black and white images confronting the horrors of the trenches.
Sassoon – played by a terrific Jack Lowden, is witness to all of this at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland, where his nights are filled with the screams and wails of patients in agony or enveloped by the nightmares of their PTSD. The hospital is also where he meets Wilfred Owen; the eminent poet – played by Matthew Tennyson and although his screen time is brief, captures their relationship so beautifully, as an unspoken exchange of the love that Owen held for Sassoon. He craves Sassoon’s approval of his poems, which he finally receives with the haunting original 'Disabled', and that scene masters the use of a long take, directing the audience to simply witness the effect that Owen’s poem has on Sassoon.
Davies’ dialogue is melodiously poetic and only elevates the elegant performances of the actors, especially in a memorable scene between Sassoon and his doctor in which they speak volumes without speaking much at all.
The film is exquisitely shot, with almost every shot of the film aligning itself in the centre frame. Through the static and beautifully fluid camera movement, the film never fails to place Sassoon in focus, trying to achieve a semblance of symmetry. The production design and costumes lend themselves perfectly to the period appeal, seamlessly blending the traversal from the past to Sassoon’s present as an older man, played staunchly by Peter Capaldi.
Although the film is overlong at its runtime of 137 minutes, it never fails to convey the deep sadness throughout that Sassoon has come to experience towards the end of his life. Constantly reminded of the men he loved and the ones he lost, Sassoon is still troubled by the visions of amputees and injured soldiers, and is unhappy with his marriage to Hester Gatty whom he turned to after a constant failed string of relationships with men; that he attempts to find some constant in his life by converting to Catholicism.
Benediction's exploration of the often-ignored negative impact of the wars in film couldn’t be more relevant to today’s political world and bears a resemblance to the horrors emerging from the victims of the Putin-Ukraine war. It is this horror that Terrence Davies has magnificently managed to capture, and bottle the true essence of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems.
Featured Image: IMDB
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