written by Richard Brody, The New Yorker
The modern cinema is, in large part, a tale of three Ter(r)ences. Terrence Malick, Terence Davies, and Terence Nance are all crucial innovators of film form, and their innovations all reimagine the same building block of movies: the very nature of a character. Malick’s response is metaphysical, Nance’s is interpersonal, and Davies’s is the most radical of all: it’s cultural. Davies’s new film, “Benediction,” which opens Friday, is an inside-out bio-pic of the British poet Siegfried Sassoon; it follows many of the familiar contours of the genre, but, above all, it renders the poet’s inner life by way of his aesthetic touchstones and cultural references. Sassoon’s art was transfigured and his public image forged by the First World War, and the movie brings his experiences of history to life with a documentary-like implant of artifacts. The result is a grand-scale melodrama that embodies its protagonist’s artistic power and intimate passion along with the devastating experience of war and the oppressions of what passed for normalcy in law and mores.
Sassoon lived from 1886 to 1967, and was already a writer of note by the time that the First World War began. The story in “Benediction” begins in 1914 and ends in the nineteen-sixties, and its framework is chronological, though the movie is filled with audacious leaps in time, both ahead and back. Throughout the movie, the war is an open wound in Sassoon’s mind, and, as he advances in age and the world moves on, the wound torments him ever more. Davies crafts simple and startling effects to conjure the relentless presence of Sassoon’s traumatic memories in the course of his daily life and amid its intimate dramas and creative furies. From the very start, Davies displays both the originality of his methods and their overarching design. At a London theatre that’s presenting the Diaghilev ballet set to Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” Sassoon’s poem about that performance, “Concert-Interpretation,” is heard in voice-over on the soundtrack as the stage curtain rises, and the image yields not a performance of ballet but black-and-white archival footage showing—as the poem relates—the preparations for war.
The story of Sassoon’s life is sufficiently dramatic that the mere description of its main events plays like a movie. A gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Sassoon (played, as a young man, by Jack Lowden) was a part of what one lover calls “the shadow life,” a glittering underground of sophisticates and socialites whose eminence and glamour are menaced by the persecutions of power. The potential devastation of these threats is suggested by the very presence of Sassoon’s close friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), who, as Sassoon reminds a mutual acquaintance, took great risks to defend Oscar Wilde (who was imprisoned for his sexuality) and to preserve his literary legacy. Robbie also defends Sassoon, who was a courageous officer in the war, decorated for his bravery, but who refuses to return to the front on political grounds, thereby risking court-martial and execution. Robbie manages to get Sassoon declared ill; in a military hospital in Scotland, Sassoon meets a younger poet, Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), whom he considers the greater artist. Their intense romance ends when Owen is returned to duty and dies in combat a week before the end of the war.
After the war, Sassoon enters the London beau monde and begins a turbulent romantic relationship with the musical-theatre composer and actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine); he has another with the aristocratic Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), and, despairing of the febrile solitude of these brittle romances, marries a woman named Hester Gatty (played, as a young woman, by Kate Phillips) in the hope of finding stability and serenity. Instead, Sassoon (played, as an older man, by Peter Capaldi) grows increasingly tormented, embittered, and wrathful, treating the loving attentions of Hester (played, as an older woman, by Gemma Jones) and their son, George (Richard Goulding), with cruel and high-handed contempt. He seeks solace through conversion to Catholicism, but religious devotion offers little comfort. Davies doesn’t follow all of the byways and epicycles of Sassoon’s life; rather, he shears them down, tweaks dates venially in the interest of concentrating and focussing the film’s dramatic intensity and its psychological clarity.
In his first, largely autobiographical features, “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” Davies attests to the formative influence of Hollywood movies—and Hollywood musicals—on his aesthetic sensibility. (Davies was born in Liverpool in 1945.) The adamant modernism of those two features is imbued with the spirit of the movies that he grew up with, but it hardly reflects their manner or style. It wasn’t until Davies made a movie in the United States—“The Neon Bible,” from 1995—that he began something like his psychological conquest of Hollywood, his personalized variation on the kinds of movies that had shaped his sensibility. In 2000, he unleashed “The House of Mirth,” an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s novel that is far closer in style and mood, in inner music, to Wharton’s writing than is Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence.” (The commercial failure of Davies’s film kept him from making a dramatic feature for a decade.) Davies’s 2016 bio-pic of Emily Dickinson, “A Quiet Passion,” is, in effect, a screwball tragedy, its whirling domesticities perched at the edge of the abyss. In “Benediction,” Davies turns Sassoon’s life into a self-conscious Hollywood melodrama, a grand historical tale that makes its very historicity its subject—and a story of memory that reflects history in an original form.
Befitting a movie about a great writer, “Benediction” is a film of copious and brilliant dialogue. The talk is often confrontational and lacerating—Sassoon, even in his youth and even in the face of formidable authority, is depicted as contentious and acerbic. The spell of pugnacity is broken only in scenes of rare mutual understanding, and the characters’ intimacy and dignity are all the more precious for the risk of self-exposure and vulnerability that they face. Yet Davies goes beyond the text to give it a distinctive cinematic identity; he devises a style that seemingly inscribes his characters’ sharp-pointed discourse onto the screen. That method is daring in its simplicity, even its recessiveness—the use of taut and still frames, held at length, that give the actors enough space to transmit their language through their postures and gestures as well as through their vocal inflections, and that, in their very stillness, seem to hold the words up for display and scrutiny like the borders of a printed page.
The cinematography, by Nicola Daley (remember her work and her name in awards season), also offers scenes of tightrope tension by way of an agile and graceful camera that uses the frame to trace the movement of time (a method reminiscent of that of another great cinematic artist of memory, Max Ophüls). Several of the sequences set in the military hospital offer camera moves that are as limpid and thrilling as a dance. One scene, which culminates in the parting of Sassoon and Owen, condenses a torrent of emotion into a figure of style so exquisite and reserved that it plays like cinematic literature itself. That reserve isn’t monolithic: the characters joke and jibe, strut and dance throughout the film, and they also erupt with rage in moments of anger that are all the more disturbing for their suddenness and their unfettered ferocity. And Sassoon witnesses extremes of agony in the hospital that Davies depicts with a shocking candor.
As for the poetry that’s at the center of the movie—both Sassoon’s and Owen’s—it’s a virtual character in itself, and it’s largely inseparable from the memories of the war that the poems enshrine. Much of it is paired with archival documentary clips of the war, of the marshalling of troops, of recruitment on the home front—and of devastation, of corpses rotting on the battlefield, of grievously wounded soldiers recuperating in benumbed stillness. Davies treats these images like cultural artifacts at the same level and of the same sort as the poems that give the movie its emotional core. The documentary element extends further, to the music that fills the soundtrack, whether Novello’s or that of other popular singers; a 78-r.p.m. record of George and Ira Gershwin’s “Love Is Here to Stay” accompanies a scene of great emotional import. In an astounding touch, Davies makes dramatic use here of the peculiarities of that era’s records and players. Joining the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams to a poem of Owen’s, he turns the movie into a virtual opera.
There’s something breathtakingly comprehensive about Davies’s achievement in “Benediction.” Its very time frame, reaching from his family’s prehistory to his maturity, suggests his effort to compose something like his own personal British history. The cultural life of music and literature are his own heritage as well. As a gay man who has spoken of his unease at being gay, as a lapsed Catholic whose religion was a “scar” on his life, Davies seems to speak with Sassoon in an offscreen dialogue of recognition and sympathy. “Benediction” is an expansive movie of loss, isolation, and horror; it’s an energizing and inspiring movie about the vanity of existence itself. The physical design of the film—its décor, its costumes, its settings—coalesces with the actors’ diction and gestures, as well as with the historical characters in Sassoon’s circle who populate the action, and with the memory of love and the exaltation of art. The film brings the past to life with a vividness and an immediacy that seem wrenched from Davies’s very soul.