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Benediction

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- Siegfried Sassoon biopic quiet, slow-burning, yet incandescent drama - 

Siegfried Sassoon is remembered today as one of the most influential of the British “war poets” – that group of young men who rebelled against the jingoistic and witlessly patriotic verse of the establishment writers.

Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves et al, pioneered a modern style of writing that eschewed the fluttering flags and stiff-upper-lips that had gone before – and instead described the horrors of mechanised warfare and its aftermath, in unflinching, harrowing detail.

Sassoon was also a genuine war hero. He was awarded the Military Cross, was recommended for a Victoria Cross and was told by his commanding officer that we would have received a DSO, if only Sassoon could have been bothered to file a report, after he had single-handedly captured a German position in broad daylight, with only a handful of grenades and his suicidal disregard for his own life to aid him.

In 1917, Sassoon, sickened by the slaughter and the hypocrisy that caused and fed off it, wrote a letter to his commanding officer. He called it Finished With The War: A Soldier's Declaration. It reads, in part, "I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”.

Sassoon's declaration caused a sensation and was viewed by some as treason. Probably as a way to silence or discredit him, Sassoon was bundled off to a military hospital and treated for “neurasthenia”. Today we might call that PTSD.

Sassoon met Wilfred Owen in hospital and greatly influenced the younger man's work. When Owen was killed the following year, only a week before armistice was declared, Sassoon was inconsolable.

And yet, all of this is preamble and backdrop to Terence Davies' film Benediction. Davies is a brilliant, indefatigable and uncompromising film-maker. His Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) will always have a place in any conversation about the greatest British films of all time.

In Sassoon, played here by Jack Lowden, and by Peter Capaldi as an older man, Davies has found another perfect, distant muse. Sassoon lived a life of wild contradictions. He was brave on the battlefield in a way that should have led to his death many times over. Yet, in his personal life, he was heartbreakingly sensitive and unsure. He was a lover of Ivor Novello – the biggest popular music star of the era – and the socialite and aristocrat Stephen Tennant, who was an inspiration for the character Sebastian Flyte, in Brideshead Revisited.

Later, Sassoon married, had a son and established a career as an editor and novelist. But it was a life haunted by loss, betrayals, deaths and loneliness.

Davies makes of all this a quiet, piercing, slow-burning and yet incandescent film.

Calling Benediction “poetic”, is the laziest sentence I hope I write all year, although the film undeniably is. This is an elegiac and eventually devastating portrait of a life, of an era and of a generation undone by horrors. 

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

Benediction is now playing at Light House Petone!

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