I enjoy historical plays and novels and have, of course, seen some of them as films. I have therefore heard quite a lot of the sort of thing where well-dressed characters shout across rooms things like:
“You really must meet Oscar Wilde – and Bernard Shaw will be here in a few minutes!”
Shaw certainly arrives but he looks as if his spiky red beard is only being held on by will power. I was reminded of such scenes as I watched parts of Benediction such as the bit where Sassoon is about to get married and we suddenly discover that no less a person than T.E. Lawrence is among the guests! As well as observing unintended humour in historical films I also spent a lot of time having the facts of Sassoon’s life and work knocked into me by the conventional methods of studying biographies, poems, critical works etc. Was I approaching the poet in too enclosed and regimented a manner? As I watched Benediction I began to think so. There were times when we were not sure what year it was or whether Sassoon was still in the army. People seemed to float about possibly suggesting the trauma of war. The words contemplation and pause seemed to be brought to mind as we watched that strange period between the wars being re-created
In Benediction we have a concentration on Sassoon’s personal life and relationships from when he joined the army to his marriage and old age. Now that homosexuality is being more fully accepted it seems appropriate to focus on Sassoon’s personal life, but I must confess to feeling the lack in the film of references to him writing and struggles with his poetry, except voice-overs. The play Not About Heroes, dealing with Sassoon and Owen’s relationship and their efforts to write and find a new language to express the horror of war, seemed powerfully dramatic and involving compared to Benediction’s views of several rather unremarkable young men being vaguely witty in Art Deco settings!
However, in order to get my reactions to the film into perspective I decided to think about what I really liked about it. Firstly, I found the camera work fascinating. Anything to do with the photography seemed to have both an obvious meaning and a more symbolic one. For example, at the beginning of the film, we see the front of a concert hall as the camera sweeps down from a black and sinister sky. Inside the hall the camera moves towards a sea of faces all intently listening to the music. Sassoon's is one of the faces. These faces echo the black and white footage that appears from time to time in the film showing more faces of soldiers marching, waiting, going over the top. It is as if these black and white images are a kind of shorthand for reminding us that it was the First World War that produced the post war world we see in the film. This careful attention to the “design” of the film is seen repeatedly. For example, we see Sassoon’s home, where his mother lives, and the camera moves slowly as if relishing the books and keepsakes of the nineteenth century, a peaceful time before the war. Again, the camera moves slowly round Sassoon as he sits in church, possibly wondering about his future conversion to Catholicism. When Owen and Sassoon say goodbye at Craiglockhart the camera concentrates on them going very slowly down the stairs as if wanting to prolong their time together. This lingering over valuable things from the past contrasts violently with the wild dancing of the Charleston and Tango which seems to represent a new, lively and perhaps more superficial age.
I did have a problem with the rapid cutting from one scene to another and with the large sections of Sassoon’s life that were left out of the film. We saw little of his youth – no hunting or cricket and his early attempts at writing are missed out. Though there is a voice-over of his protest, it is not emphasised. I felt that people who did not know much about Sassoon would be confused, especially as there were sometimes quick cuts between the scenes. On the other hand, the quick switches from one scene to another may have been meant to show Sassoon’s own confusion due to the war. I remember trying to work out if he had left the army yet, but he was probably equally confused by the chaos of the battlefields and the constant cancelling of orders by superior officers.
Of course, the film deals with a very specific period of Sassoon’s life, the period between the wars, so it is only fair to examine how it succeeds in achieving its aims here. The film has strong pictorial and “design” qualities shown in the camera work noted above. The move from the fussiness of Sassoon’s mother’s rooms from a bygone era, to the battlefields, then to the comparative peace of sleek, expensive Art Deco rooms successfully makes the central part of the film feel like a well of peace and quiet, despite the emotional stress Sassoon is going through. Interestingly, in the latter part of the film in which Peter Capaldi takes over the role of Sassoon, we see almost claustrophobic later twentieth century rooms as if emphasising that the war achieved nothing. This way that the pictorial and design qualities seem to act as a kind of emphasis for the subject of the film is very interesting.
Unfortunately, I did not feel that the script came up to a high level. At first it is entertaining to see a group of young men exchanging jokes rather as if they were in an Oscar Wilde play, but when the jokes are not that good it soon palls and you start looking at the architecture of the room for distraction! However, the acting was very good throughout, I thought. One big advantage that the film had was that even the very small parts were played by important actors so Sassoon’s mother, the older Hester Gatty, the chief medical officer at Craiglockhart, etc., made as much impact as the major players. In this way a whole believable world was created round Sassoon. The main actors seemed to be squeezing every ounce of meaning out of their roles. Jeremy Irvine (Ivor Novello) really seemed to show the different sides of his personality, one minute singing and playing popular songs then being selfish and demanding. His eyes did look “angry” as a party guest remarked. Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant was in a state of collapse one minute and launching cynical witticisms the next. You could easily see how he might provoke sympathy and affection. Matthew Tennyson, as Wilfred Owen, expressed the liveliness which is not often seen in stage portrayals of Owen, who is frequently shown as just the serious minded war poet genius! In fact he said he regretted that he had to be “the poet of sorrows” and shows a sly humour in his letters. Even though he did not have many lines to say I felt we could have seen a bit more complexity in his characterisation. I somehow did not see either Owen or Sassoon dancing the tango but this could have been showing how the more superficial world of the Twenties was breaking in on the serious intensity of poetry. I found that, when I looked at the film as a whole, the images of Tennant, Novello, Glen Byam Shaw, etc, faded, but the relationship between Sassoon and Owen at Craiglockhart seemed more significant. I wondered why this should be and decided it was because Sassoon and Owen were both poets linked by the mysterious art and craft of poetry. They had so much more in common than Sassoon had with any of the more superficial young men he met.
Though I found the acting very good I felt there were some things in this carefully constructed world that didn’t work. In regard to the acting, though Peter Capaldi is a very good actor, the fact of him being welded onto Jack Lowden as an older self didn’t work for me. The change seemed too sudden and I never felt he was really “in” the part. The situation was not helped by him doing a lot of contemplating the past and not doing much talking. Also, I noticed towards the end of the film there was a strange inclination to see George Sassoon and his father enacting a sort of modern domestic drama of the wayward son who fights his father but is kind to him in the end! It is possible of course that Terence Davies wanted to show the strange movements of history whereby the cosy Victorian world gave way to terrible warfare, then there was an odd pause where people floated around being witty, which eventually gave way to another war. Later there was a collapse into domesticity ending in small living rooms where it seemed people lived on memories.
Jack Lowden himself gave a very solid performance. Though he was silent for much of the time, his silences set against the lively behaviour of the other young men in his circle suggests he cannot get rid of the shadows of war. It is suggested that at least one of the young men, Ivor Novello, was entertaining the troops with his songs rather than fighting in the war. Lowden’s silences made us speculate on how he might be thinking of the gulf between him and them and the fact that he must turn to them because all his other friends, including Wilfred Owen, are dead. Near the end of the film we see Sassoon break down completely. He is sitting alone on a seat in the park on a cold night. He appears as the older Sassoon played by Peter Capaldi but as the scene progresses he reverts to the young Sassoon. This seems to stress how he can never escape from his young self fighting the war. Lowden, with great sensitivity, gradually gives way to tears, and the gasping pauses in this outpouring of emotion seem to indicate the way the full horror of the war is becoming clear to him.
Though very successful generally in his part I feel Lowden was possibly less successful in conveying a variety of emotions. His meeting with Hester Gatty when she is sketching near the churchyard (another reference to those dead in the war?) and his more intimate scenes with her were rather embarrassing. You could say that the director wanted to show the difficulties he had with women but the dialogue seemed steeped in cliché and was laughable in parts. In fact other bits of the screenplay were a problem. I think the real difficulty might have been the fact that there was not much complexity shown in most of the characters including Sassoon. Though Lowden was very good at expressing suppressed emotion, emotional turmoil and hidden feelings, we did not see any other layers of Sassoon’s personality. I would blame the dialogue for this, not the actor. Of course I could be wrong: Terence Davies could have wanted to leave out complexity of character deliberately so that he could create a kind of dream image of this interlude between the wars where people seemed to move in a slow dance round Sassoon and each other, dropping flat keys, saying goodbyes, etc, against a background of muted Art Deco colours.
I actually saw the film twice, once at FACT in Liverpool and once at HOME in Manchester. The audiences in both cases were larger than I thought they would be. All in all, I enjoyed it in spite of some criticisms. I’ve found myself thinking about it quite a lot since and I feel increasingly that Terence Davies was trying to make a new kind of film which was not like the old conventional format of long dialogue and dramatic situations. Rather it was like an Impressionist painting where the background of recent war was sketched in, important things like Sassoon and Owen at Craiglockhart appeared in brighter colours, and the whole thing seemed like a slow movement across time. This inter-war period of Sassoon’s life left Sassoon thinking about his sexuality, mourning dead friends and wondering how his writing would develop; in other words it was a strange lull. Terence Davies drew in the worlds of design, photography and the background of history with its periods of turmoil and peace.