LFF 2021: Benediction

Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi play Siegfried Sassoon at different ages in Terrence Davies’ elegant, haunting biopic of the war poet

Film Review by Anahit Behrooz | 22 Oct 2021
  • Benediction
Film title: Benediction
Director: Terrence Davies
Starring: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Harry Lawtey, Ben Daniels, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Simon Russell Beale

In the second preface to his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings, author J.R.R. Tolkien finally responded to much whispered claims that his Middle-earth stories were all one great allegory for the Second World War. “It seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years,” he wrote. “By 1918, all but one of my close friends were dead.”

Benediction, Terrence Davies’ elegant, haunting biopic of queer war poet Siegfried Sassoon (played at different ages by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi), may be worlds away from Tolkien’s fantastical realms but its evocation of this irreconcilable, shattering loss is wrenchingly familiar. Beginning in 1914 and spanning Sassoon’s conscientious objection, various love affairs with men, and eventual marriage and conversion to Roman Catholicism, Benediction is unapologetically expansive yet astonishingly laser-focused for a runtime of over two hours, acting as a staggering and courageous memorial to an obliterated generation.

Relatively little of the story takes place during the 1910s, yet war is – thematically and visually – everywhere. Davies’ collage-like use of archival material merges Lowden’s Sassoon with grimy, nightmarish footage of trenches and decomposing bodies, as the horrors of the battlefields dog his footsteps well into old age. A series of eager, delightfully catty love affairs meanwhile, conducted in the heady arrogance of youth, make a case for life amidst the relentlessness of death, yet also recall the continued hostility of a world that renders them illicit, war or no.

As the older Sassoon, Capaldi is reliably acerbic, but Lowden is Benediction’s heartbeat-like meter, his performance of inexorable trauma both tender and gutting in equal measure. The final scene in particular – set against the heartbreak of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Wilfred Owen’s “Disabled” – offers one of the year’s most devastating closing shots. Throughout Benediction, the laconic smiles and tight-lipped defiance of Lowden's Sassoon seem to (barely) conceal a howl of fury, constantly threatening to break through. Barely concealed it may be, but every moment resounds and thuds with it all the same.

Benediction had its UK premiere at London Film Festival