Terence Davies’ feature tells the story of the remarkable life of acclaimed British poet Siegfried Sassoon. A decorated soldier during WW1, Sassoon’s anti-war poems later led to him being sent to a psychiatric facility, where he had several affairs with other men before entering into a heterosexual marriage. Davies' film gives a full account of Sassoon’s life and work, and features what Variety described as: “A tremendous star turn by Jack Lowden."

  • Year: 2021
  • Runtime: 137 minutes
  • Language: English
  • Country: United Kingdom
  • Director: Terence Davies
  • Cast: Kate Phillips, Tom Blyth, Jeremy Irvine

Review by Alice Owens

The script sparkles with barbed and witty conversation filled with innuendo and sarcasm.

Sassoon’s and Owen’s anti-war poetry is rhythmic and stirring as it pervades Lauden’s voiceover; affording a pulsing foil to the beating of the drums as the soldiers march to war.

Casting, costumes and makeup are impeccable. The sumptuousness of the society scenes, the repulsive decaying corpses, the stylised movement of the gay men, and Edith Sitwell’s exaggerated poetry performance, make for electrifying entertainment.

The cinematography is outstanding, interspersed with authentic black and white film clips of the time, indicating the comradery, excitement, and full horror of war, with cadavers of horses, as well as humans, rotting on the battle fields.

Songs and dances infiltrate the action, providing respite with lighter moments, and some that jar. Typically English by Bricusse and Newley is a delightful song at an aristocratic party, as is Hester Gatty’s charleston dance with Sassoon. Equally, a meaningless chorus about weather, from the Pirates of Penzance, signifies a bland, unexciting period in Sassoon’s life. When clips of stampeding cattle intermix with old footage of soldiers charging into battle, to the cowboy song Ghost Riders in the Sky, this surreal episode works in an off-kilter way.

Told with exquisite artistry, using flash-backs, a voiceover peppered with pertinent poetry, and the misery assuaged with interludes of song and frivolity, the film utterly enthrals.

Review by Glenda Cimino

Benediction is written and directed by Terence Davies, based [loosely] on the life of poet Siegfried Sassoon. Although Davies is gay, this is the first time he has portrayed love and desire between men. The film assumes either that viewers already know about the people portrayed in the film, or that it doesn't matter. I researched other sources which often contradicted the characterisation in the film. While Jeremy Irvine excellently portrays Ivor Novello as a selfish and deliberately cruel lover with absolutely no artistic talent, other sources praise his successes – in song composition, acting, writing, musicals, silent films – including two by Hitchcock. I wonder if the nasty one-dimensional Ivor of the film really resembles the actual person.

Siegfriend Sassoon survived fighting in the First World War and was even decorated for his bravery, but after recovering from a wound in 1917, he refused to return to duty, sending a letter to his commanding officer, stating “the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”. His friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) - Yes, the same Robbie who stood by Oscar Wilde when he went on trial - pulls strings to ensure that Sassoon, who is after all a decorated war hero, is not subject to the court-martial Sassoon wanted, but sent away to a military psychiatric hospital in Edinburgh, where he is treated for a 'nervous breakdown.' Sassoon feels humiliated that he did not make a greater stand against the war. [In fact, he later rejoins the war himself until he is wounded again,] In the hospital, he has sessions with Dr. Rivers [Ben Daniels] who confides his own homosexuality to Sassoon, who also befriends and mentors younger poet Wilfred Owen [Matthew Tennyson] . Possibly Sassoon was in love with Owen, and some sources suggest Owen was also gay, but this was not acknowledged. In the film, Owen goes back to war and Sassoon sees him off with a handshake.....in life, Sassoon was so violently opposed to the idea of Owen returning to the trenches,that Owen didn't tell him where he was going.

Anyone expecting a chronological life story will be disappointed. Davies's film is a lyrical stream of consciousness, following associations of memory. Archival and disturbing images from the war are seamlessly interjected. Two strange CGI images show Sassoon[Jack Lowden] and later his lover Stephen Tennant [Calum Lynch] morph into the older versions of themselves.

The film focuses on Sassoon's sex and love life, following him through a series of unhappy gay relationships, some like that with Ivor Novello, totally humiliating. Homosexuality in the day was still strictly illegal and punishable by law. The film explores themes of sexual identity, social norms, personal and artistic integrity, and the sense of mulitple failures and losses that haunted Sassoon. He falls in love with the superficial Stephen Tennant, who abandons him. After Stephen leaves, Sassoon decides to marry the non-Jewish Hester Gatty [Kate Phillips], a bright and kind young woman who is well aware of his sexual inclinations. Nonetheless, they have a son together. Sassoon converts to Catholicism. The film cuts to scenes of the couple (now played by a curmudgeonly Capaldi with a perpetual frown, and the beaten down unloved Gemma Jones) in their joint old age — in reality, the marriage was marked by a significant age gap and ended far sooner, when the son was only about 8 years old. Stephen is shown coming to ask Sassoon for forgiveness and friendship. Sassoon tells him harshly that his apology is thirty years too late, and Stephen leaves disappointed. Sassoon came from an incredibly wealthy Jewish family with a habit of disinheriting children who marry outside the Jewish faith.

However, although his father disinherited him, iin real life his aunt, Rachel Beer, first female newspaper editor, left him quite enough money to be much more comfortable than the film depicts. And some biographies say that he continued to have visitors and was supportive to young writers who came to see him. Not a lonely and bitter end, after all. And some critics think that Sassoon's marriage may have been happier than depicted in this film. I hope so for both their sakes.

Review by Neville Wiltshire

This is a very powerful and thought provoking Film. The anti-war element is especially relevant in view of the present war mongering and sabre rattling by politicians who are happy to order the killing of others while they remain safe.

To my shame, I knew very little about Sigfried Sassoon. (probably would have thought hairdressing). I now know that he was a gifted poet, not afraid to speak out but opposed and rejected by the hypocritical society he was born into. The film follows him from his early twenties to his old age. His opposition, while an army officer, to the war caused him to be deemed mentally ill and institutionalised. Here and later on we follow him through a series of heart breaking homosexual affairs into a marriage of escape and older disillusionment. All very moving and sad. There is some great cynical, bitchy dialogue.

The film is interspersed with newsreel clips and musical inserts. I could not understand why the 1949 song Ghost Riders in the Sky was paired with a clip of 1914/18 war carnage.

There are time jumps, one of which confused me for the next five minutes. In the conversion scene there is a sudden 40 year jump from young to old that had me wondering what the villainous actor from `House of Cards` was doing there. The film needs to be watched carefully as some of the pretty young men look alike.

Ivor Novello comes across as not a very nice person.

Unfortunately I can`t comment on individual actors a my link cut out before the credits.