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The Poet as Hero

Benediction-movie-review-jack-lowden-jeremy-irvine
TIFF

MOVIE REVIEW
Benediction (2021)

“Benediction,” Terence Davies’s Siegfried Sassoon biopic, coalesces from nonlinear memory fragments, the device for which the filmmaker is best known. With this particular film, though, he seems oddly wistful for a time when people were terrible and terribly unhappy to boot.

Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi portray Sassoon at two different life stages: Mr. Lowden is the younger Sassoon, who refused military duties during World War I, laid low at a sanatorium per an army doctor’s order, gave readings at society shindigs and fooled around with a pair of soulless men, composer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). Mr. Capaldi is the bitter, older Sassoon, who floundered in a loveless heterosexual marriage with Hester Gatty (Gemma Jones; Kate Phillips in earlier years), converted to Catholicism and griped about being passed over for knighthood.

Memories are fluid, hazy, fleeting and intangible; Mr. Davies conjured these qualities masterfully with “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes.” The achronology in “Benediction” works toward that sense of a drifting mind, but the direction here feels stiff. Instead of the free-associating characteristics previously achieved through his signature use of dissolves, the reliance here on budget special effects sticks out like a sore thumb. A scene showing the young Sassoon discarding a C.G.I. Military Cross into a C.G.I. body of water should be best left on the cutting room floor.

“Benediction” comes off as self-indulgent, suffering the worst impulses seen in both Mr. Davies’s dramatic oeuvre (“The Neon Bible”) and his nonfiction work (“Of Time and the City”) as well. Sassoon’s poems are recited in voiceovers throughout, with the same dispassionate delivery from Mr. Lowden seen and heard during the impromptu poetry reading given before party guests. Mr. Davies seeks to connect Sassoon’s work with anecdotes from his life, but the poems sound divorced from the accompanying montages.

There is a lot to nitpick here, but Mr. Lowden just isn’t very effective. He does not seem to have any sort of agency while being surrounded by a cast of larger-than-life supporting characters. Of the various vignettes in Sassoon’s life depicted in the film, the ones that truly stand out are his gay affairs. Both Novello and Tennant are portrayed as one-dimensional prissy bitches like Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) in “Downton Abbey.” They are presented so disdainfully that it’s impossible to comprehend Sassoon’s attraction to them. His glacial relationship with Gatty also begs further exploration. As it stands, the film is just lazily casting her as a victim of heteronormativity.

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