Siegfried Sassoon was a brave officer who captured a German trench almost single-handedly in the early stages of the Battle of the Somme. For this he won an MC. His soldiers knew him as ‘Mad Jack’ for his daring and courage. But, while recovering from wounds in a London hospital in 1917, he came under the influence of various pacifist friends and began to see the war very differently.
Sassoon later issued a ‘Soldier’s Declaration’, in which he denounced the war and said the continuation of it was evil. He refused to return to his unit. He could have been court-martialled for desertion, for which he might have been put in front of a military firing squad. But his influential friends intervened. Supposedly having gone mad, he was sent instead to a shell-shock hospital outside Edinburgh, the famous Craiglockhart.
The early stages of Benediction (written and directed by Terence Davies) deal with this story in a very cursory way. There is no treatment of Sassoon (Jack Lowden) as a war hero. The distant conflict is covered by extremely poor-quality black-and-white archive. In a cumbersome visual metaphor, men going into battle are compared to cattle being herded into stockyards.
The film gets into some sort of stride as Sassoon is interviewed by Dr William Halse Rivers (Ben Daniels) at Craiglockhart. The conversations that followed had a profound effect on both men, and are probably the best-known doctor–soldier relationship of the war. They have fascinated many people over the generations, and proved the basis for a series of novels by Pat Barker.
However, there is nothing of fascination in Davies’s script. The discussions are slow, clichéd, and are filmed in ponderous single shots. The principal role they play in the film is to present a discussion between two gay men about ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. Sassoon is coming to recognise his sexuality. Rivers, the older man, always had and will continue to repress it.
Indeed, it is Sassoon’s sexuality that is at the heart of Davies’s film. At Craiglockhart, he meets the more openly gay Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). They discuss poetry and dance a tango cheek- to-cheek. Craiglockhart’s commanding officer is astonished to see two men dancing so intimately, and after upbraiding them has no idea what to do, so he simply tells them to carry on.
In the post-war world, Sassoon begins a sequence of affairs with gay men. First, there is ragtime composer and utter cad Ivor Novello (powerfully portrayed by Jeremy Irvine). Sassoon replaces Novello’s previous lover Glen Shaw (Tom Blyth), but Glen keeps returning like a bad itch and, when Novello dumps Sassoon, Sassoon takes up with Glen.
Then there is Sassoon’s most intense relationship, with Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). This goes on for some years – although no one seems to age in the film. Each of Sassoon’s relationships feels unreal. Dialogue consists of supposedly witty one-liners. Nothing is allowed to develop. Most of the filming is through heavily staged tableaus.
Sassoon encounters various eccentric women during the Roaring Twenties, including a wild Lady Ottoline Morrell (Suzanne Bertish) and a mysterious and pompous Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams). In reality, both became good friends of the poet.
Eventually Sassoon is seduced, literally, by Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), who has admired him from afar for some years. They marry and have a son. We never really find out what happened to the relationship (in fact, they did not separate until 1945).
The scenes of Sassoon in the 1920s and 1930s are intercut with scenes of him as an older man in the 1960s (played by Peter Capaldi) arguing with his son, George (Richard Goulding). There is no sense of the elder Sassoon as a leading literary figure or as a nationally renowned poet and critic. He has simply become a grumpy old man who shouts a lot.
There are some aspects of Benediction to admire. The film imaginatively foregrounds several poems. ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’ by A E Housman is used early on as a bugle call for young men to go off to war. Several of Sassoon’s own poems punctuate the story. And the film ends with a passionate rendition of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Disabled’, as a legless solider in a wheelchair looks on while men and women frolic in the hospital gardens. This is a truly moving lament to physical loss.
But most of the film is supremely slow, stilted, and laborious. It is far too long. Jack Lowden is not a convincing Sassoon. It is impossible to imagine this man being called ‘Mad Jack’ by the men of his company. Or to see him as the writer of one of the greatest trilogies in English literature, about growing up before the Great War and then living through it. He blows through the film like a feather in a storm. His affairs are at the core of this film, and they are what most interests Terence Davies. There is nothing wrong with that, but it tells us only part of the extraordinary Siegfried Sassoon story.
Benediction will be released in cinemas in the UK and Ireland on 13 May 2022.