Soldier and poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) returns from the war adorned but disillusioned. His evocative lyrics about the horrors of the trenches make him a catalyst for 1920s London, but a cloud of sadness and guilt from the survivors follows him, throwing a ball about his glamorous, bedridden life.
Funny banter isn’t the kind of fun one would traditionally expect from Terence Davies’ achingly sad films. And yet Liverpool’s melancholy master of autobiography (The long day closes) and adjustment (The deep blue sea) has been in close contact with his inner Oscar Wilde lately, finding a source of sparkling wit in the life and work of iconic poets. First came A silent passion, which portrayed the thoroughly morbid Emily Dickinson as an articulate conversationalist whose gift for gossip helped keep despair at bay. And now Davies has turned to a local wordsmith with equally elegiac sorrows, who revels in his cutting way of words while acknowledging the sadness behind them.
Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden), as blessing Presenting him was the voice of a devastated generation – a veteran-turned-conscientious objector speaking through his revered work for the countless young men lost in World War I from observations to archival footage of the battlefield. Early on, the artist fearlessly confronts his superiors and risks a court-martial to question their chauvinistic motives. “Are you pro-German?” they ask in disbelief. “I’m for people,” he replies.
Lowden balances the writer’s amused, quick-witted charm with his moral exhaustion.
And yet Sassoon’s life was not all doom and gloom. Unlike Dickinson, they went out and about, hopping from bed to bed through the era’s gay artist and celebrity scene. blessing is also a fleeting, sometimes scathingly funny portrayal of jazz-age London, with various bright young things exchanging insults (and more) like characters in a Noël Coward play. Among them is indeed Coward cohort Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), the dashing but caddy stage star who seduces Sassoon and then breaks his heart.
Lowden balances the writer’s amused, quick-witted charm with his moral exhaustion. The impression is of someone using their intelligence defensively, fighting off the darkness piece by piece. Through this outstanding leadership blessing articulates a vision of the Roaring Twenties as a major distraction, a mass denial of the staggering losses the world has just suffered. The film is occasionally reminiscent of Sassoon’s twilight years, decades of a sexless marriage when his grief outweighed his vivacity. One can’t help but love this little Davies himself in the character’s incorrigible quirkiness, especially with a grey-haired Peter Capaldi as the older Sassoon, roaring over the music of the modern world.
blessing cannot avoid all the pitfalls of the biopic, a genre that tends to be informal. But Davies movingly honors the competing sides of his real-life subject matter, his pained eloquence and playful repartee. “You must speak directly, not in someone else’s voice,” Sassoon encourages a young protégé who dies in battle shortly afterwards. Nonetheless, Davies extends the reach of his own voice by channeling the poet’s mind (and verbal skill). Who knew he had such good motives in him?
Finding both sadness and hilariously crushing wit in the eventful life of a celebrated war poet, Benediction offers some of the sharpest, most nimble dialogue of writer-director Terence Davies’ esteemed career.