Starring: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Matthew Tennyson, Gemma Jones, Anton Lesser, Simon Russell Beale
Director: Terence Davies
Siegfried Sassoon has become one of the loudest literary voices that emerged from the First World War. His war poetry, which described both the horrors of trench warfare and satirised its jingoistic patriotism, is now a mainstay on the English Literature curriculum, alongside the work of his peer – and lover – Wilfred Owen. In this biopic, Jack Lowden (Dunkirk, Mary Queen Of Scots) plays the young poet, while Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who, The Thick Of It) plays Sassoon as an older man, in a movie directed by renowned British auteur Terence Davies (The Long Day Closes, The House Of Mirth).
We meet Sassoon in 1917 as he is sent to a psychiatric facility due to his anti-war stance, insisting that it is only continuing because of the egos of those in power. At the hospital he meets Owen (Tennyson – Pride) and their brief affair is ended when the latter is returned to fight at the front, dying shortly before the end of the war. Upon his release, Siegfried comes under the mentorship of Robbie Ross (Russell Beale – The Death Of Stalin, Into The Woods) and begins a toxic affair with renowned playwright Ivor Novello (Irvine – War Horse, Stonewall), but the poet is so damaged by his experiences in the trenches that he is unable to form any lasting connection with anyone.
The film focuses most on his love affairs, demonstrating the psychological damage that has been inflicted upon him. He tramples over the heart of his lover, Stephen (Lynch – Bridgerton, Dunkirk), who is unable to move on from their broken relationship. With the timeline drifting back and forth, we meet the older Stephen (Lesser – Game Of Thrones, Pirates Of The Caribbean) and Sassoon’s eventual wife (Jones – Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sense & Sensibility), who are still living in the wake of the trauma he endured.
As you would expect, there’s a lot of Sassoon’s poetry used as voiceover during the film, with one poem used to extraordinary effect in the film’s final moments. Visually, too, the film is thoroughly poetic, using montage and nuanced SFX to visualise the horrors of the poet’s memories. With the narrative picking up only after Sassoon had left combat, we only see the war through archive footage and artistic vignettes that illustrate but don’t demonstrate what he went through. It looks – and sounds – absolutely beautiful, but with the director taking his time with all this material, it clocks in at almost two and a half hours, which is a long slog for any biopic.
Lowden is strong as the titular writer, but Jeremy Irvine’s performance as Ivor Novello is the showy stand-out of the film. It also succeeds with aplomb at depicting the existence of a thriving gay community in society’s upper echelons decades before the decriminalisation of homosexuality. And with characters famed for their literary voices, the script that frames them is both eloquently verbose and intelligently catty.
Benediction might be slow, but it’s a rich feast of a biography, helmed by a director with a refined but confident flare. It might be obvious for a film about a poet, but poetic it absolutely is and it’s a worthy biopic for such an esteemed figure.
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by Vertigo Films