Through a legacy of poetry, Siegfried Sassoon was a leading voice in the English anti-war movement during World War I. Along with being traumatized by his military service, Sassoon’s personal life was also a source of strife, partially due to being homosexual in a time when it was literally illegal. Writer/director Terence Davies brings this tortured duality to life in his latest film, Benediction; and through the performances of Peter Capaldi and Jack Lowden, the tale of Siegfried Sassoon’s complicated life is as pithy as it is heartbreaking. Which is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of The Deep Blue Sea.
Setting itself apart from standard biopics, Benediction injects a serious subject with two qualities you wouldn’t expect in a film such as this: humor and almost dream-like visual flare. As we see Siegfried Sassoon’s younger years play out through military service and on the social circuit, Jack Lowden holds court as the English poet. Right from the start, we see Benediction clue us into the heartbreak that Sassoon would find himself suffering throughout his life; and the art that would come from it. Haunted by World War I, we see actual footage integrated into scenes of reflection, as both Lowden and Peter Capaldi’s incarnations of Siegfried reflect on what was to be the war to end all wars.
But for a little while, in the younger section of Benediction’s tale, we see Jack Lowden inhabit the somewhat happier times that Siegfried Sassoon enjoyed through various romantic affairs. As he’s betrayed by lovers like Ivor Novello (War Horse’s Jeremy Irvine), Lowden run the gamut from pining lover to angry ex, and some of the insults that come out of it are quite sharp. Benediction’s pithiness comes mostly from this piece of the film, but Peter Capaldi does get to work his way into that mode as well.
Bookending the bulk of the film that sees Jack Lowden playing Siegfried in his middle ages, Peter Capaldi’s performance as the older Sassoon ties closer to why the film is called Benediction. After a certain point in his life, Siegfried Sassoon chose to do what most men in his position were doing: select a woman they could trust in order to marry, have children and live somewhat of a heteronormative life. Capaldi’s older, embittered Sassoon is the result of such decisions. Turning his back on old friends and pursuing absolution through his conversion to Roman Catholicism, Terrence Davies’ depiction of Siegfried Sassoon seems to be caught between the life he left behind and the one he’s chosen.
Benediction is also a fantastic feather in Peter Capaldi’s cap, especially considering he’s coming off of a role in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Moving from a big budget blockbuster to a quieter drama is exactly the sort of move the former Doctor Who star is adept at making. But even fans of Capaldi’s work in The Thick of It will be pleased by a particular moment of comedic outburst towards the end of the film, as Siegfried Sassoon has an adverse reaction to his son George’s taste in ‘60s pop music.
It’s moments like this that truly tie together Jack Lowden’s youthful exuberance and cutting barbs transition into Peter Capaldi’s seemingly cold, yet regretful self. In Benediction, both men command the role with equal gravitas and equally powerful voices well equipped to read the melancholic prose of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry. More importantly, you can believe that they are the same person, as Terence Davies’ stunning direction of his own script melds the actors into one satisfying whole.
Tempered by moments of pithy dialogue and happiness, the sorrow of Benediction only resonates more deeply. As the film closes with Peter Capaldi enjoying a moment of glee, juxtaposed with the final image of Jack Lowden overcome with a moment of grief, both halves of Siegfried Sassoon’s image come together for a powerful finale.
Benediction is currently showing at the Toronto International Film Festival, with no release date set at the moment for public debut. In the meantime, check out the 2021 release schedule, to see what other films of historical interest are headed to a theater near you. And don’t forget to check out our continuing coverage we’ll have from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, here at CinemaBlend!