Though Jack Lowden’s often talked of as a potential Bond, the supremely gifted actor doesn’t need a franchise to put him on the map. Age 31, he’s as soulful-looking as Tom Hiddleston and as cheeky as Simon Pegg. Which comes in handy for this mercurial portrait of WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon. Lowden’s convincing as a playful charmer who when faced with horrors doesn’t know whether to laugh or scream.
Though stuffed with big houses and beautiful toffs, the latest offering from British writer-director, Terence Davies, was never going to seduce the Downton Abbey set. It’s too experimental; too slow. Nor will it convert those who found The Deep Blue Sea histrionic and/or A Quiet Passion uneven. But if you love Davies, you’ll know what to expect and be transported by scenes that hint at deep feelings, as opposed to nailing them down.
The closeted Sassoon, having become a vocal opponent of the war, (as well as the big whigs prolonging it), winds up in a psychiatric hospital, where he meets gay, state-educated, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson; as shyly alert as a meerkat). In a thrillingly economical and virtually silent moment, the poets glide past each other in a swimming pool. The camera, from above, captures the pair’s tadpole wriggles and the fact that, after their heads almost touch, Owen breaks into a smile. The real-life Owen once wrote that he viewed Sassoon as “Keats + Christ... + Amenophis IV in profile”. Davies doesn’t invoke those words. A poet in his own right, he doesn’t need to.
Owen (easily more talented than Sassoon, as Benediction seems happy to acknowledge), is crucial to another extraordinary sequence. At the end of the film, we hear Owen’s poem, Disabled, and see fleeting glimpses of a working class, wheel-chair-bound soldier, left out in the cold as night falls. Seconds later, it’s Sassoon sitting in the darkness, his body intact, his mind anything but. For Davies, both the soldier and Sassoon are victims of a vicious brand of hypocrisy. England, here, is a country that adores battles but is repulsed by the battle-scarred, a country that idolises men, except when they idolise each other. (Julian Sands excels as a homophobic official, who all but doubles over with disgust at the sight of a same-sex tango).
Music, as ever with this director, provides lovely jolts. Archive footage of cattle, and British soldiers being treated like cattle, accompanies the song, Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend), released by Vaughn Monroe, in 1950. The ditty is outrageously anachronistic. It’s American. Yet it’s perfect.
Benediction comes unstuck only when it seeks to interest us in Sassoon’s inter-war love life and subsequent God-bothering. Siegfried, apparently, had terrible taste in men and we are encouraged to boo two of his preening, promiscuous and poisonous lovers. Though Jeremy Irvine and Calam Lynch (as Ivor Novello and Stephen Tennant) massively overplay their parts, it’s the script that’s at fault. We can’t tell if the characters’ bitchy one-liners are meant to be tedious or titillating. If Davies is trying to demonstrate how empty these pretty boys are, he labours the point. If the plan was to have their Wildean wit double as a guilty pleasure, Davies should have worked harder on the gags. There are modern writers (hello, Alan Bennett) who can match Wilde. Davies isn’t one of them.
Even when it’s not glib, the dialogue in these “roaring 20s” segments is cringe-worthy. After Sassoon makes a reference to gay young things, Hester (Kate Phillips), a genial woman who will eventually become his wife, trills: “I think everyone should be gay, don’t you?” Our hero’s crashingly stodgy reply: “Only in the wider sense.”
We’re also supposed to care when, in snarly, sulky middle age, Sassoon (now played by Peter Capaldi; wasted), hangs out in a Catholic church. But his confused quest for redemption feels so familiar. Meanwhile, there’s no mention of the fact that Sassoon’s father, Alfred, was Jewish. Or that Alfred converted, in order to marry Sassoon’s mother, to the absolute horror of his Orthodox family. That Sassoon went from being a High Anglican-raised agnostic to a Roman Catholic makes more sense, once you know his history. Without that context, it’s footling stuff.
So is Benediction worth seeing? At one point, Sassoon’s pretentious pal, Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams; spry), admits her most recent work has been met with less than rapturous enthusiasm. Though convinced that Façade – An Entertainment is a work of genius, she glumly repeats a wonderfully withering comment, made by a member of the audience: “It’s this sort of thing that makes one glad to be semi-conscious.”
Some will find passages in Benediction hard to endure while sober, yet at its best it’s ferociously good. Here’s a period drama that shows an iconic figure getting wizened, rather than wiser. Davies is 76 years old. He may not have all the answers, but the questions he asks are timely and devastatingly profound.
137mins, cert 15. In cinemas