The world is full of anomalies.
The tragic artist is a well-worn trope and yet historical record continuously demands it be used. War poet Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) fits the bill—a man of growing renown who was whisked off to fight the Germans during World War I only to come home marred by the experience and inspired to speak against motives that had steadily grown less virtuous by the day. He was a hero awarded for his bravery and adored by the men who served under him yet one of his first works upon his return was a letter calling out the British military for its callousness and greed. Saved from the potential of a firing squad by a well-connected friend (Simon Russell Beale‘s Robbie Ross), he “recovered” in a mental ward instead.
Writer/director Terence Davies uses these details to begin Benediction with a genius desperate to atone for the horrors he witnessed and committed upon his fellow man—one that may have been angling for that firing squad to both make his point and end his despair. That Sassoon was spared almost feels like a death sentence to him because the few moments of happiness he earns forever seem to end in suffering. His younger brother died fighting. His first “love” (a fellow poet in Matthew Tennyson‘s Wilfred Owen) does too. And the subsequent men who cross his path continue that revolving door of heartbroken pain whether Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), or Glen Shaw (Tom Blyth). He even tries a wife (Kate Phillips‘ Hester Gatty) too.
It should come as no surprise that the film ultimately ends with an extended scene of Sassoon crying on a park bench as Owen’s final gift to him (a poem entitled “Disabled” that is very intentionally kept from us until this moment) is read aloud. Don’t therefore expect any happy endings. Life is too complicated for them on a good day and Sassoon lived through many bad ones both in terms of being drafted and existing as a gay man in a world still ruthlessly against homosexuality. Not even when Davies performs an aging dissolve that transforms Lowden into Peter Capaldi do things turn around. If anything, Sassoon grows even more jaded and defeated with age. How could he not upon realizing his compromises made for salvation failed?
We don’t actually spend that much time with the older Sassoon. With less than two-and-a-half hours of runtime, Davies focuses mostly on the poet’s romances post-war to pre-marriage. He gains the courage to act upon his impulses in that mental ward thanks to Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels), quieting the toxic homophobia of his military superiors, like the hospital’s chief medical officer (Julian Sands), to live as openly as he can amongst fellow artists and aristocrats alike. One boyfriend leads to the next as acquaintances within similar circles blossom into relationships that generally conclude with Sassoon being the jilted party to balance out the fact that the affair began with him creating a different jilted party first. As the world changes, he remains stuck in an era of war.
Is it all as interesting as what Davies put on-screen about another poet in Emily Dickinson via A Quiet Passion? Sadly, no. Benediction is a gorgeously shot and produced work (although I prefer when he splices in archival footage as segued vignettes than when he projects it behind the actors with a green-screening effect that took me out of the visual immersion), but it can also feel a bit redundant. We’re kind of working towards a future (we meet Capaldi’s Sassoon somewhat early as he’s converting to Catholicism, a conversation with his son George, as played by Richard Goulding, previewing the marriage to come), but doing so adds little beyond the promise of a woman. It colors the heartbreak of Lowden’s Sassoon as a toll inching towards defeat.
Yet we stay invested regardless thanks to Lowden’s central performance. His Sassoon has so much love to give and yet it’s always met with frustration, betrayal, and death—not that his choice of men helps matters (Irvine perfectly embodies the vain superiority of an abject narcissist who Geraldine James, as Sassoon’s mother, sweetly calls out with the most innocent of keen observations). We hope one of them will work out or at least not end with vitriol and jealousy, but that broken man sitting in a church for one last ditch effort at being saved (after love, marriage, and fatherhood all let him down) supplies the unfortunate truth that none will. Sassoon is trying to make some sense of life through shadows that those around him can’t see.
And Davies periodically lets us in via the poet’s own words narrated atop montages and a few abrupt cuts shifting us from darkness to comedy (like an unexplained gunshot moving Sassoon from hospital bed to theater district before showering a friend with unapologetically feigned appreciation). We glean that Sassoon is playing a game to advance his career just as he seems to self-sabotage his love life by choosing emotionally unavailable men who will never reciprocate what he’s giving back. The drama is thus drawn a bit superficially to push us forward, Lowden often providing much more through his performance than the script does through its plotting. It’s enough to remain captivated and begin to understand who Sassoon was, but it also reveals that there’s plenty more to discover.
 Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in BENEDICTION Photo Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
 Jack Lowden in BENEDICTION Photo Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
 Kate Phillips and Jack Lowden in BENEDICTION Photo Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.