Author biopics can be terribly dull, but then few authors have lived a life quite like Sigfried Sassoon. The British poet’s words became a chilling epitaph for so many in the First World War, but Benediction by director Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives) shows an uncompromising picture of the real man.
Jack Lowden plays the younger Sassoon, a celebrated soldier turned vocal critic of the war, whose challenges see him committed to a psychiatric hospital. The film looks at the writer’s struggles with trauma and his homosexuality.
In his post-war years an ageing Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) rails against the world that never let him find happiness. Gorgeously crafted, Davies uses everything at his disposal to show a life awash with struggle. Lowden excels in the lead, delivering such emotional moments with a calm tone that brings to mind Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game.
Struggling to solve (as Capaldi puts it) “The enigma of other people”, it’s a story that moves toward regret rather than trite celebration. Lowden is helped by strong support from Matthew Tennyson as Wilfred Owen, the fellow patient Sassoon would mentor into becoming an equally celebrated poet.
Jeremy Irvine is an amusingly catty Ivor Novello, with the weight of being closeted given almost as much focus as the horror of war. While he doesn’t get as much of the film as his co-star, Capaldi is intriguing as the embittered older man coming to the realisation that the change he sought for so long may never come, with his strained marriage and damaged son the consequences of that regret.
Benediction may be downbeat, but it feels more involved and honest than a thousand Hollywood puff pieces. It’s a film that is genuinely interested in the man behind the work, and the damage done to so many like him.