In Review

Film review: Benediction

Moving Terence Davies film about the life of Siegfried Sassoon

Feature films by the British writer-director Terence Davies “don’t come along very often”, said Brian Viner in the Daily Mail, but when they do, they are “usually worth watching”, even if they demand a “certain perseverance”. Benediction, about the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, slots into that category: “it is pretty hard going, but has its rewards”. Sassoon, who died in 1967 at the age of 80, is played as a young man by Jack Lowden, and in his embittered older age by Peter Capaldi. Davies “powerfully” punctuates the tale of his life with original footage from the War, “of shell bursts over the trenches and cheerful Tommies showing their gap-toothed smiles to the camera as they march to their doom”. The sections set after the War drag a bit – and Capaldi fails to quash “a faint Scottish twang” – but there’s plenty here to move and enlighten. 

Lowden is “excellent” as Sassoon, said Matthew Bond in The Mail on Sunday, but the script is an often tedious blend of “clever verbal jousting and over-polished bons mots”; and with a parade of caustic characters that includes Ivor Novello and Edith Sitwell, there are times when it feels like an “Evelyn Waugh-style pastiche”. 

I loved it, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator. Davies approaches the life of the poet “with great feeling and tenderness”; and he eschews the usual cinematic clichés about writers: we never see Sassoon crumpling a piece of paper and throwing it across a room. Be warned, however: the film is heartbreaking. In 1917, Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) in hospital, and recognises his arguably greater talent. The intimate friendship that follows is handled “with such restrained emotion you will almost certainly weep”.

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