For several months, I have been nose-deep in Leonard Bernstein’s correspondences, a large number of which have been compiled into a book that sits on my bedside. It is a fascinating look into the composer’s inner life—his passions, his worries, his triumphs, his fits of frustration. Throughout Bernstein’s life, he crosses paths with a number of other prominent composers, including Aaron Copland, who introduces Bernstein to English composer Benjamin Britten. These men, all of whom possess what feels safe to call a fluid sexuality, write to each other with such warm camaraderie, their letters to each other undoubtedly testimonies of love, though platonic. Consider the following from Britten:
I was very, very pleased that you liked the Sinf[onia] da Req[uiem]. Judging by your remarks you certainly “got” what I wrote, & it was extremely nice of you to take the trouble to write & say so. I am sure that it’s the “best so far”—and as it’s the last, that is as it should be. I might argue with you about one or two of your remarks about my earlier masterpieces—but may be there is something in what you say.
The most shocking turn in the book (so far) comes later in this particular letter: Britten signs his note “Benjy B.”
Benjy B.! A buoyant nickname imbued with haste and familiarity. It is not that I didn’t believe Britten was capable of, I don’t know, having a nickname so much as I’d never really thought of him beyond one specific composition, a piece of music that negates the concept of friendship, his 1962 War Requiem. It is a haunting, almost unlistenable piece of music—one I came to know first as a teenager, and later as an adult, that summons profound malaise and dread. War Requiem takes the form of a Latin mass and contains within it nine poems by Wilfred Owen, a WWI poet killed right before the war’s end in 1918. I think of all these men: Bernstein, Copland, Britten, Owen, and, last but never least, Siegfried Sassoon—Owen’s mentor, who stands at the heart of Terence Davies’s Benediction, a revelation, a signature at the end of a letter if ever I saw one.
Sassoon, like Owen, was an anti-war poet; at first, he’s caught up in the sweep of the First World War, though the tides change the second his legs waver on the battlefield. Benediction begins not with Sassoon but with Igor Stravinsky, whose bombastic and controversial The Rite of Spring premiered the year before the war. Sassoon (Jack Lowden) and his brother sit for the show, white ties and gleaming smiles. In Paris, there were rumors of a riot, a panic, set forth by Stravinsky’s work. This is a myth, probably, but as with all things poetic, there is likely some truth to it. As the curtain rises, we see not the rise and fall of strings on bows, but footage from WWI set beneath Stravinsky’s composition, with Sassoon’s poetry in voiceover. Life prior to the war was glorious—sausages for breakfast, Sassoon recites—before it became bloody and brown and broken.
The footage is no less horrifying because it lacks color: even without the gory details, the reality of the war is vivid and violent, slain horses and limp legs swallowed up by the mud. By the time we rejoin Sassoon in the world outside of montage, he is a different man. He has lost his brother. He has seen too much.
From Sassoon’s “Counter-Attack”:
“O Christ, they’re coming at us!” Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle … rapid fire …
And started blazing wildly … then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans …
Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
It’s not only that the war—whatever the war had set out to accomplish—failed, it’s that Sassoon himself has failed. He failed as a soldier. He failed as a son of England. And for his failures, he’s punished with time away from the battlefield, to heal his body and mind, in a countryside hospital where he might, if he’s lucky, learn to believe in the cause again. To his mother, Sassoon specifies that he has trench fever—“Nothing fatal…just debilitating.”
Jack Lowden plays Sassoon the younger, the focal point for much of Davies’s film: a smart, sensitive veteran navigating the woes of both relationships and his post-traumatic stress disorder with deft humor and wounded sympathy. Lowden’s performance is genius, to say the least. A great strength of Davies’s films and directing is in his choice of actors: often, he opts for performers who reinvent themselves under his eye. In Sunset Song, model and actress Agyness Deyn—who I have only otherwise seen in a great, steely turn in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell—brings her otherworldly beauty and poise to a Scottish woman living in the Highlands. In A Quiet Passion, he tapped into the theatrical melancholy and wisdom of HBO and almost-New York governor Cynthia Nixon. Lowden, though a steady working actor, is unattached to celebrity, slipping into Sassoon’s body as though it were a satin glove.
Benediction is not a particularly plotted film; this is not “how Siegfried Sassoon got his groove back,” and Davies is smart enough to not let it succumb to that. I could make the case that Benediction is a three-act play: the first is war, the second is love, the third is God. But again, Davies is too wise and slippery a filmmaker to give way to convention. Instead, Benediction ebbs and flows through time, largely chronological, but prone to fantasy and hiccups. There’s so much we don’t see and even more we don’t know. Set in warm browns and lush greens, I was reminded less of stuffy artistic biopics of days yonder, and more of the firm, layered density of a tree trunk.
Before Sassoon tips, head over heels, into London society, he is, regrettably, committed. First, he comes down ill in physical health, and then in mental health, no longer believing in the cause of the First World War. An inflammatory letter to his superiors made public puts Sassoon in the doghouse. “Your mind is still in chaos,” they tell him, “that you are unfit to be trusted with men’s lives.” In lieu of being shot—!—for going against his orders, Sassoon’s pals, including Robbie Ross (the always-welcome Simon Russell Beale), manage to get him up to a cushy veteran’s hospital in Scotland. There, he dedicates himself to his poetry—already a quiet passion, so to speak—at the encouragement of his therapist, Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels).
This portion of Benediction is sprawling and intellectual, the most magical section of the film. Here, perhaps, is where we see Sassoon not merely alive, but coming back to life. Though Rivers and Sassoon’s conversations are shot with a stillness, Davies allows the men to speak in full, complete ideas. Two intellectuals going head-to-head, only to realize that they more often agree with each other than not. Sassoon is initially skeptical of his mental health treatment, but thankfully, Rivers is funny. He asks Sassoon to submit to the hospital’s literary magazine. After Sassoon promises a poem “light and amusing,” Rivers scoffs: “There’s no need to go that far.” Sassoon doesn’t laugh, but you can tell the amusement is there, bubbling beneath the surface.
What’s important to know about Sassoon, and what Lowden’s performance so perfectly captures, is that Sassoon is often kind of a little shit. He has, politely and respectfully speaking, an attitude problem. On one hand, he has witnessed a number of horrors, which perhaps should grant him carte blanche to speak however he likes. But Sassoon knows he is often the smartest person in any given room, and through gritted teeth and steely gaze Lowden imbues his character with a petulant intellect. “What I feel cannot be talked away or soothed into silence,” he warns Rivers. He is, respectfully, too good for therapy, though it helps him nonetheless.
Rivers introduces Sassoon to Wilfred Owen (played, in a Babylon-esque bit of stunt casting, by Matthew Tennyson—yes, of Lord Alfred Tennyson relation), a young poet who, like Sassoon, is sensitive and gay and eager to be as far away from the war as possible. The two men share their writing with one another, and perhaps something more. Again, Davies is too smart a filmmaker for there to be errant romance between them. Instead, something more unexpected: a tango. Dancing, cheek to cheek, Owen and Sassoon share more in a single dance than they ever will again in their lives, the former never returning from the front, his work far more known in modern day than Sassoon’s, his lines paired with the music of the aforementioned Benjy B.
From “Everyone Sang”:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.
Benediction’s second act is borderline Wildeian: can you believe the language is more robust here than it is in the part about Siegfried Sassoon’s war poetry? We follow Sassoon in his post-war life. What does he get up to? Not much. Work is slow, tired. What’s a war poet without a war? At times, Benediction feels revolutionary because it’s not simply the portrait of an artist as a young person, it’s the portrait of an artist after he’s made all his art. Though Sassoon would continue to write after his time in the military, this is what we know him for, and Lowden infuses his performance with the regret of a man who, by his early 30s, is past his time.
Sassoon flits around London, taking up romances with men who are familiar with his work and just embarking on their own. Under the lax guidance of Robbie Ross, Sassoon meets the wicked Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), an eyeliner-wearing (or dark-lashed) singer with a bad attitude and worse boundaries. But like the man who plays him, Novello is, reluctantly, a pretty hot guy, and Sassoon lets his heart get crushed beneath the wheel of the other man’s ego. (Novello leaves his partner, Glen Shaw—played by Tom Blyth—the night that he and Sassoon meet, to give you an indication of what fate might soon befall our sweet Siegfried.) From there, he moves onto Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). But what a shame to this E.M. Forster fan that Forster—though friendly with Sassoon in life—makes no appearance in the film.
Despite all his allies and friends and lovers, Sassoon is miserable, forlorn. He suffers from all of the usual human predicaments, but mostly what bothers him is that he lives, painfully, with his trauma from the war. This is not doled out in a long-winded monologue. There is but one flashback of his time in the hospital after being shot. On the couch, at his mother’s, Sassoon is thrown back with the memory of a gunshot, the film’s only jumpscare. He is haunted, nightly, by the screams of the military hospital, of the men he could not save. But we don’t bear witness to this turmoil. Mostly we see him be rude to his peers at restaurants. We see them be rude to him in return. Sassoon lives a petty, shallow life, but far less petty and shallow than his gay peers, who he does not respect. What do they know of his suffering? What do they know of suffering at all?
Sassoon’s “The Poet As Hero”:
You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,
Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented—
My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.
You are aware that once I sought the Grail,
Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;
And it was told that through my infant wail
There rose immortal semblances of song.
But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad,
And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.
“There’s only one thing worse than remaining in the past, and that’s begrudging the future,” Sassoon warns his mother in the film, though he does not heed his own advice. In the future, Sassoon is no longer embodied by the cherubic visage of Jack Lowden, but rather by the long grimace of Peter Capaldi. Capaldi, like Lowden, is Scottish, his accent fighting through every line of dialogue (Lowden is much more successful at hiding his brogue). This Sassoon struggles, literally, to speak. By the time Sassoon has reached this point in his life, words and sentences and turns of cheeky phrases do not bring him joy. Every uttered line is a struggle, a push through and ahead into an ever-miserable future. By this point, he is married to a woman, Hester (Kate Phillips as the younger, Gemma Jones as the elder), and has an adult son, George (Richard Goulding), who he doesn’t respect much. He doesn’t care for his son’s attitude, though it mirrors his own youthful sass. Perhaps this is why.
It is true that Sassoon spent his latter years converting to Catholicism, and it is true that Sassoon married a woman. What would either of these things—conversion, chosen heterosexuality—grant a man like Siegfried Sassoon? What good is he, to paraphrase Todd Haynes’s Carol, if he’s living against his own grain? Not to go full Webster’s defines benediction as, but “benediction” is a word I feel we often use without remembering, in earnest, its own definition. A “benediction,” in the traditional Catholic sense (and I think Davies’s vision of Sassoon would want us to think of that definition first), is the prayer that brings Adoration to a close. More generally, it is a prayer or word that connotes an ending; as a non-Catholic myself, I have come to think of “benediction” as synonymous with a blessed conclusion. A sigh of relief. It’s tricky, in turn, to reckon with this holy definition of the film’s title in tandem with Sassoon’s story: what is ending? Is Adoration over? How are we to believe this man has been blessed? Sassoon feels himself cursed: cursed with knowledge, with empathy, with family and friends he no longer cares for.
There is one constant in Sassoon’s life, one thing that makes his life worth living. We see it at the start of the film, and we see it again at the end, as well as periodically throughout Benediction, and this is the Davies touch: live music, live performance, the cinema, musicals, poetry, literature, art. All through a life full of torment and tumult, pleasure and provocation, Sassoon’s anxieties and ills have been soothed, if temporarily, with the art of others. Consider the grand opening on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. By the end of the film, after a screaming argument with his son, Sassoon joins the boy—a man, really—for a night out on the town. So too did he sit in the hospital and listen to musical performances. Every man he touched—and a few he wanted to—in his gay youth in London was enmeshed in the arts somehow. This centers Sassoon: it gives him purpose. He may be long past his days of potent poetry, but he is still grounded by the fantasy of others’ imaginations, the possibility of a life not his own.
There were three of us in the theater the night I saw Benediction, myself and an elderly couple—though I suppose I don’t know with any certainty whether they were a couple; they could have been friends. There was an intimacy between them that I watched along with the film—curious and empathetic, her whispering to him, or maybe him whispering to her, for the movie’s duration. What part of Benediction needed explaining, I wondered, both then and now, wading my way into the muddy depths of the film, unsure of what I’d find. It’s possible that Benediction’s excellence registers in its musical script, its love of language. It’s possible I love the film because of Lowden’s revelatory performance; it is damn-near impossible to play this level of intelligence1 (one of the reasons that this and TÁR feel like such miracles).
But Benediction is not a puzzle, nor does it court confusion. Rather, what must be explained is that Sassoon’s life, whether he wants it or not, is a blessing. He might realize it by the end, too, a gentle handshake with his son working wonders to clear his conscience. After an evening outing to a production of Stop The World — I Want to Get Off (apt), Sassoon takes a detour on his walk home. He stops and sits on a park bench, thinking back to his time at the hospital and not his own writing, but a poem by Wilfred Owen about a soldier who lost his legs. It’s a famous poem, perhaps more famous than all of Sassoon’s combined. It’s the second time we’ve seen this poem in the film, but we never heard it aloud the first time; we sat with Sassoon as he read it, his eyes dancing across the page with excitement. But Owen is no longer here, and Sassoon knows he must reckon not with his own failure but with his success: he is still here. He survived. Through privilege and intelligence and charm, he pushed through the offensive that was the British military-industrial complex. He got his life back, and for what? To suffer, no doubt, but also to laugh and write and listen and watch. He had his nickname—Siggy, sometimes—these sad men and their little names. He loved and it ruined him, but so did the war. He sits and weeps not for himself, but for those who did not get his privilege or his luck. What a terrible waste, what a wonderful life.