A star poet is handed the latest work by his younger protege. It is titled “Disabled.” The protege is Wilfred Owen, one of the great voices of the trenches of the Great War. The mentor is Siegfried Sassoon, the other famous British voice of World War I, both of them poets with grimly heroic combat experience.
In Terence Davies’ recounting of this moment in his film “Benediction,” he takes the time to let us watch Sassoon (Jack Lowden) read the entire poem. There is no music underscoring the scene, no voice-over narration of the poem, no interruptions to praise Owen (Matthew Tennyson, a descendent of a pretty good poet himself, Alfred), just an actor playing a poet silently reading for a solid two minutes or more screen time.
Davies (“The House of Mirth,” “A Quiet Passion”) had his reasons for this early scene, jarring for its quiet, in “Benediction.” He reprises the poem, in full, in the film’s most emotional moment — its finale.
But that scene and the sole emotional moment reminded me of one reason I never warmed to Davies, widely acknowledged as one of the masters of modern British cinema. He takes his artful sweet time making his points, and that leaves us with a long film that never feels deeper that a surface gloss on most of the characters, the career and the era.
Later on, when Sassoon meets the musical theater icon, lyricist and film star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), Davies treats us to part of one of Novello’s lighter tunes, and then another, sung and played in full by the tuxedoed life-of-the-party at the piano.
Was this solo really necessary?
Davies’ films are often slice-of-life vivid, detailed and patient. But at his most indulgent, they’re mini-series length and paced, and delivered in a single too-leisurely sitting.
“Benediction” takes in several large passages of Sassoon’s life. We glimpse his war service (recalled, but we never see him in combat), Sassoon’s public protest against the way the war was conducted, and subsequent military trial and institutionalization.
He and Owen met at a military hospital where they convalesced and had an affair. We skate through Sassoon’s often unhappy post-war romances, scenes filled with the famous — Novello was another affair — most them of merely named-dropped (Gershwin, T.S. Eliot, etc.) or limited to miniscule cameos (Robert Graves, T.E. Lawrence).
And then there are the bitter years, the 1950s and ’60s, in which Sassoon is played by the biting Peter Capaldi. That Sassoon bickers with his son (Richard Goulding) over his late-life conversion to Catholicism and refuses the apologies of those who wronged him, way back when.
Scene after scene suggests the viewer needs to do her or his homework to appreciate who the parade of characters passing by are.
It’s a beautiful film, and a well-cast one. Many snippets of Great War archival footage are artfully-used to illustrate the trauma and horrors that the film suggests haunted the famous poet to the end of his days. The slow-passing pageant can feel like some sort of staged tableaux. But Davies gets a lot of characters and a lot of years into this survey of Sassoon’s life, shortchanging the career save for snippets of voice-over-narrated poetry.
The dialogue is witty with an emphasis on bitchy, a smart, educated gay man from the “love that dare not speak its name” era insulting a narcissistic lover so shallow that his life isn’t a life, “it’s barely a hobby.”
“What shall I do with my hair?”
“Have you considered topiary?”
Julian Sands plays the medical officer who walks in on Sassoon and Owen practicing a dance for the hospital musicale, and grumps that such gentlemen formerly went “into the library with their service revolver and did the decent thing.”
But if you don’t know who Robbie Ross was in London literary (and homosexual) circles, Simon Russell Beale’s screen time in that role doesn’t explain it.
Davies messes around with the timeline of events, and toys with Sassoon’s most legendary gesture, tossing his Military Cross medal into the River Mersey after writing his scathing “A Soldier’s Declaration” and seeing it published in a newspaper and read in the House of Commons. The medal-tossing never happened.
But all these quibbles aside, Lowden, Capaldi and Davies still give us a beautiful sketch of a poet who peaked writing about the war that traumatized him, and who lived on for another half century, published, appreciated and lionized but never honored as much as he felt he deserved.
That comes across in a sumptuous period piece that will send curious viewers (like me) to Wikipedia and their favorite search engines, just to finish the writer-director’s work for him.
And for all his “slow cinema” indulgences and patience-testing “patience” as a story teller, the old master Davies, Lowden (“Dunkirk”) and the poet Sassoon mentored make sure “Benediction” leaves us with an emotional punch that no film this year can match.
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing war images, some sexual material and thematic elements
Cast: Jack Lowden, Kate Phillips, Jeremy Irvine, Geraldine James, Gemma Jones, Simon Russell Beale, Calam Lynch, Anton Lesser, Ben Daniels, Richard Goulding, Julian Sands and Peter Capaldi.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Terence Davies. A Roadside Attractions release.
Running time: 2:17