The fact that Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen shared time together at the same Scottish hospital during World War 1 – an event most famously relayed, of course, in Pat Barker’s Regeneration – feels like one of those rare cosmic coincidences that slips past reality’s defences to help make sense of an otherwise incomprehensible piece of human history. It’s therefore no surprise that Terence Davies’s Benediction uses this period to underpin its entire emotional arc, every beat of the story of Sassoon (here played by Jack Lowden) linking back to the doomed Owen in one form or another. It’s one of the best choices of an otherwise very uneven film, providing emotional grounding when everything else starts going off the rails.
A rather conventionally structured biopic, Benediction tracks Sassoon’s life from the 1917 publication of his letter of protest against the War to his fractious relationship with his wife and son in his older years (played in these scenes by Peter Capaldi). It’s an engaging enough journey, but in its straightforwardness, not to mention the obviously limited budget meaning a lot of gaps have to be filled by stock footage of the war, sometimes feels better suited to a BBC4 docudrama than the big screen.
This is compounded by Davies’s incredibly stagy stylistic choices, using minimal extras, simple sets, and some rather ill-advised effects VFX shots that have actors and sets transforming in alienatingly conspicuous ways. Though these elements are a constant, Benediction works best when they can fade into the background, particularly as it follows Sassoon’s various doomed romances with figures like composer Ivor Novello (a dusky-eyed Jeremy Irvine) and socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch).
It’s in the sort-of-secret world of ‘20s and ‘30s gay British relationships that Benediction is both most fun and most affecting, with wars of words between exes and couples on the rocks. The humour is sometimes a little on the ‘theatrical’ side – relying on audience familiarity with philosophers, classical composers, and French wordplay to land – but Davies does manage one great comedic coup in having maybe the film’s subtlest joke come right after its biggest, broadest gag. Both earn a big, proper laugh.
Lowden is fantastic as Sassoon, deftly rising to the challenge of his biggest leading role yet, and Ben Daniels does some quietly sterling work as the psychiatrist assigned to Sassoon during his stay in Scotland, but a lot of the cast struggle with Davies’s unusual tonal switches. For the broader parts of Sassoon’s acid-tongued lovers, this isn’t really problem, but when you see Capaldi floundering in the film’s late stages, the issue becomes unignorable.
Though there’s a lot to enjoy, and it skips along at a decent pace, Benediction as a whole finds itself stuck awkwardly between straight-laced biopic and a more freewheeling, impressionistic character piece, each strand weakening the other. Lowden’s performance keeps things ticking along, all brave reserve until the dam finally, heartrendingly breaks but, directorially, this is a strange quasi-misfire from one of Britain’s most reliably excellent filmmakers.