June Butler takes a look at Terence Davies’ biographical drama film of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon.
Robert Graves in his autobiographical book Goodbye To All That, was excoriatingly direct with a scathing indictment of war, maintaining it served no purpose, was good for nothing and most important of all, there was never any justification for it. When Graves friend and soldier in arms, Siegfried Sassoon read the book, his acerbic comment was that ‘it landed like a Zeppelin bomb’ as he felt Graves had deliberately misrepresented multiple aspects of the brutality of war. Sassoon, himself a gifted poet and wordsmith, despite their erstwhile friendship, did not intend the comment about Graves as a compliment. Siegfried felt that World War I or the Great War as it came to be known, had been deliberately extended by the Allies for commercial gain with scant regard for the millions who died, of whom Sassoon’s brother was one. He stated that the jingoistic antics of leading politicians and army generals had propelled thousands of young men to die needlessly and Sassoon raged against the injustice of it all. Hamo Sassoon was killed during the Gallipoli Campaign, aboard the ship Kildonan Castle. Wounded while fighting, Hamo succumbed to his injuries after his leg was amputated.
Benediction tells the story of Siegfried Sassoon’s growing unease with how the war unfolded as trench warfare became a grotesque and muddy tomb for millions of young soldiers. The narrative evolves, alternating between young Siegfried, played with stoic tenderness by Jack Lowden, into the sixties, where an emotional and exceptional performance by Peter Capaldi steals the show.
Sassoon, filled with a sense of patriotism, enlisted at the outbreak of war in 1914. However, he broke his arm prior to leaving England and ended up convalescing in the spring of 1915. When he eventually found himself in the trenches, Siegfried proved his valour by excelling in acts of bravery, once storming a German trench single-handedly and assuming control. But there was another side to the young man – over time he came to despise continued efforts by England in what he felt was a deliberate effort to prolong the war.
After continued protests and a swing towards pacifism, Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital, an army hospital for wounded veterans, where it was maintained, he was suffering from shellshock. Army personnel could not come to terms with what they saw as a dereliction of duty and decided to call Sassoon’s abstention ‘trench fever’ or shellshock – basically any term other than dissention and a righteous refusal to fight. While at Craiglockhart, he met the poet Wilfred Owen, who was also convalescing at the same hospital. It was here where Sassoon first came to terms with burgeoning homosexual feelings. Owen and Sassoon entered a platonic romantic relationship and when Wilfred was killed shortly after returning to active duty (and ironically a week before the war ended), it further strengthened Siegfried’s belief that war was a crime against mankind to be condemned and denounced.
In perhaps homage to the ‘tatami shots’ of Yasujiro Ozu, Davies shows the diminutive Wilfred standing in front of Sassoon occupying the entire screen in almost giantlike fashion. For this reviewer, it renders the actor more present, unwavering and immediate, and as a filmic style, lends a subtle shift of power to the shyer, less vociferous Owen.
The analogy of hundreds of steers rampaging across a dusty plain as animals to a slaughter versus horrifying images of wave after wave of soldiers emerging from trenches and being annihilated almost where they stood, is not lost on the viewer. Davies juxtaposes images of fresh-eyed young men sent to fight a battle not of their choosing over scenes of mangled bodies, massacred in their thousands and layer upon layer of scorched and riveted flesh. The simple horror of each scene is stamped in the eyes of Siegfried as he bemoans the wretched awfulness of conflict.
Cleverly, Davies zigzags and cross-sections the story with haunting, monstrous images of war and death. The film flashes back and forward from war years and into the roaring twenties, onwards to the swinging sixties where Peter Capaldi as the elder Siegfried lends his expert touch to the drama. Benediction is a vast and agonizing tapestry of grief and loss. The cast is utter perfection – between Jack Lowden to Peter Capaldi. Lesser roles were played with conviction and dedication – Julian Sands as the menacing and disapproving Medical Officer was thoroughly believable. So too was Jeremy Irvine who played the dissolute and debauched Ivor Novello. It was said of Sidney Lumet that he was the ‘actor’s director’ given he extracted such searingly committed performances from those he worked with. Respectfully this reviewer feels that Davies has achieved a similar accolade – every role was approached with the same standard, that of excellence and dedication. Attention to detail was pristine.
Ethereal, profound and enthralling – Terence Davies Benediction is magnificent in every single way.