Benediction: A beguiling portrait of Great War poet Siegfried Sassoon

Friday, 20th May — By Dan Carrier


Jack Lowden plays the young Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction


Directed by Terence Davies
Certificate: 12a

The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston created a pre-Great War world of gentle country vistas, warm summers, horse riding and picnics – before taking the reader into the hell of trench warfare.

Such a contrast is at the heart of Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiographical story, which begins with idyllic canters on the South Downs.

This biopic of sorts flips between ages, with Jack Lowden playing the younger poet, and strangely accented Peter Capaldi as the older version.

We are treated to a back story told through Sassoon’s evergreen poetry and footage of the trenches. It is melancholic, deeply sad, yet Sassoon’s ability to bring alive what was happening through his writing is astoundingly beautiful.

Then the story jumps to Sassoon standing in front of an Army board, after wilfully refusing to take part in any more organised mass murder. It’s the same Catch 22 Yossarian finds himself in: you’d have to be mad to fight a war, but by recognising this, you are clearly in a fit state of mind and must go back to the front.

But his grand gesture to get court martialled and have his day in court, followed by the ultimate sacrifice of being shot by firing squad, is foiled. His friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale, well cast) ensures the agonised poet is instead deemed unfit for duty due to a nervous collapse and is sent to a pleasant sanatorium in Edinburgh, where he meets Dr Rivers and the poet Wilfred Owen.

There is a dream-like vibe about this film, a sign of the poet’s turmoil and anxiousness, the fall-out from the war and his life after.

Davies has created a post-traumatic nightmare, using clever tricks to bring out the surreal experience Sassoon had in the trenches and beyond.

The repugnance of war and the ethical failings of those who commanded it haunts the characters, a ghost on their back no matter which way they turn.

The story moves into the post-war years, where Sassoon had to face a society ridden with homophobia, and the antics of the gay men he loved. Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) drops in to be a caddish lover, as does Stephen Tennant (Callum Lynch).

There is plenty to like about this strangely beguiling story. The fantasy moments are well-paced and provide a visual insight into what the Great War did to those who survived in body, if not in spirit.

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