Words: Alastair James; pictures: Provided and EMU Films
Call me uncultured, but I'm not a huge fan of poetry. So, sitting down to watch Benediction, Terence Davies' account of World War One poet Siegfried Sassoon as it screened exclusively at BFI Flare, I was a little apprehensive.
The idea to make the film, starring Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi as the young and older versions of Sassoon, came to Davies through the BFI's now Chief Executive, Ben Roberts (then the head of the organisation's film fund)
In a statement accompanying the release, Davies recounts realising how complex a story it was going to be and how difficult it would be to fit it all into a two-hour film.
"There was so much to shape - and so much to lose," Davies says.
That dilemma comes across in the film. The first part seems to move along quite quickly, telling of how Sassoon left the war and was eventually sent to 'recuperate' in Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, after publicly stating he wouldn't perform military duties anymore.
It's here we get what are arguably some of the better scenes of the film. Sassoon is introduced to W.H.R. Rivers, played by Ben Daniels (a welcome surprise) and the two quickly develop a rapport and as their connection grows Sassoon begins to open up more.
The scenes, while shorter than they could be (sometimes annoyingly so) give both actors a chance to explore their characters with Lowden giving a fantastic performance as a man trying to come to terms with a horrifying and unimaginable ordeal, and figuring out who he is what comes next.
Rivers is clearly a calming presence for Sassoon. Daniels exudes charm and compassion. Sadly, these scenes are all too brief and are often cut away from just as they're getting good.
In one touching moment, the two 'come out' to one another; as Sassoon says: "as one anomaly to another".
Wilfred Owens, described as "the love of his [Sassoon's] life" is introduced here as well but before we know it is sent back to the war, where he died shortly before the war's end.
Given how the relationship is billed, I was expecting the film to show it in greater detail. Instead, we're left with a few scenes where not a lot is said. Perhaps it's a 'what isn't said is just as important as (if not more important) than what is said' situation?
This seemed evident with the pair's goodbyes as Owen is sent back to the Front. Truly, not a lot is said but everything Sassoon wanted to say is etched on Lowden's face. It's painful and heartbreaking.
Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in Benediction (Photo: Provided)
The rest of the film moves through Sassoon's life and his various relationships, including that of Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), who judging by this account was thoroughly unpleasant.
Sassoon finds himself in a world of slightly incestuous and rather catty gay men all making snide remarks about one another. Not the most entertaining to watch.
Jack Lowden gives a solid performance throughout. In the moments where we see Sassoon's guard come down, Lowden shows us the vulnerability of the poet, particularly in one long shot towards the end of the film.
In a Q&A after the screening, Davies told the remaining audience that he had "just known" about Jack when the two met. He was definitely a good choice.
Peter Capaldi's parts are limited and don't add an awful lot to the film, other than showing Sassoon converted to Catholicism and didn't always have the best relationship with his son. Maybe indicative that there really was too much to fit into one film...
Some of the other performances seem rather forced and lacking in much substance.
Besides odd editing choices and some occasionally amateurish looking greenscreen-CGI backdrops the film holds up, but the flaws stand out. The use of archive footage of the War also makes the film seem like something of a documentary instead.
At times it seems like it might be a story best told on stage rather than on screen. Certainly, some of the cast seemed to act as if they were speaking to the gods and the back rows.
Overall, Benediction is a decent film. Its lead gives a strong performance but the film is hampered, this author thinks, by trying to fit too much in and not being able to dedicate too much time to any one thing. Perhaps it would have been better to focus on one or two very significant relationships Sassoon had rather than darting around as much.
Benediction is due in UK cinemas in May.
Attitude's new-look March/April issue is out now.