I’ve been trying to remember how I first learned about Siegfried Sassoon. It had to have been 2012, but I don’t know if there was any particular source or story. I just know that was the period where I became aware of the British poets from the trenches of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, not to be confused with Robbie Ross, and of course then it’s on into the shattered, swirling 1920s, Stephen Tennant and Cecil Beaton and the Bright Young Things dancing by. You could latch onto Sassoon’s belt and he’ll lead you through all of that. And on to more: radiant lines thrown off Siegfried Sassoon connected with my existing planetary feature of Evelyn Waugh, would years later draw a constellation with T.E. Lawrence, and in my nearer future, when I would be flirting with going back to school to become an historian and taking a class on Germany in 1914, get so strangely tangled up in the Siegfried of Teutonic myth. To be named for Wagner’s warrior-hero, Germany joyously singing Götterdämmerung in the streets when the war begins, to go to that war and have it break you, sent to a hospital with a medal for courage and a diagnosis of the nervous disorder going by neurasthenia, ghostwritten by your friends desperate to keep you from being court marshaled and executed for writing a protest piece, on top of every aching poem you penned under mortar fire. Siegfried, name like a woe-begotten curse, a fate turned upside down. Siegfried, a refrain developed in the third season of Babylon Berlin in connection with the PTSD-wracked detective in the Weimar Republic, hands shaking with phantom shell booms and barbiturates, “Siegfried…” murmurs the voice on the underground radio, where great dragons move, and in 2019’s 1929 it is as much Sassoon as it is Wagner, thinking with a pain in your heart that this one doesn’t have a Dr. Rivers. Siegfried Sassoon, officer-son of Baghdadi Jewish merchants and English Catholics, a person feeling more like a symbol dreamt up in a novel of the 20th century, and then becomes one: plucked up from this hazy no-man’s land between historiography and imagination by novelist Pat Barker for her Regeneration trilogy. Perhaps because he began the work himself, with his amorphously autobiographical Sherston series published in the decades after the war. Are they memoirs in the guise of novels? Novels in the guise of memoirs? The historians are sub-tweeting. Meanwhile Sassoon is still drifting on, the literate ghost of the Great War, sad gay icon for a new lost generation, and getting scooped up most lately by English filmmaker Terence Davies.
I don’t know, I don’t know how exactly this happened to him, but I know it wasn’t until I saw the word later that it even occurred to me Benediction could be considered a biopic. It doesn’t feel like one at all. It hadn’t from the moment I heard about it, “Terence Davies is making a Siegfried Sassoon movie” feeling more to do with my own history than that of the world’s. Because that is something else I did in 2012: I watched (& imprinted on) Terence Davies’ adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea, a sorrowful, tea-stained portrait of a doomed affair set just after the next World War. The timing of all this! I think memories and experiences are like a house with many rooms, and they get grouped that way—not linearly, but still often by timing. It feels right for Davies to finally return to me bringing along Sassoon and Owen; they are from the same wing he lives in. The BBC’s short-lived midcentury journalism series The Hour is also right near by, another room along Waugh Hallway.
I suspect this emotional organizing by personal association would make sense to Davies as well. If anything, Benediction somehow feels more like an autobiography than a biography, befitting Davies’ origins as a filmmaker. He’s been speaking openly about this in interviews, that in pursuing the threads of Sassoon’s story he found related the most to his own feelings, he created a film that’s as much an exposure of his own heart as a history of Sassoon’s. Benediction has a loose structure reminiscent of memory, though the ellipses would seem to come as much from poetry, which appreciably makes up much of the ‘score’, I guess we could say—Criterion calls him “the supreme rhapsodist of contemporary British cinema.” It’s artful, avant-garde even at times (a theatre curtain rising to reveal grainy archival footage from the Front immediately behind), but with a distinctly 20th-century modernism, that I can’t quite put my finger on but just feel surely. Is it the retro dissolves in the edit? The pacing of scenes? Something about the performances, the lightly biscuit-colored cinematography? I could almost believe this movie to have come from 1989, the work of some softer Derek Jarman trying his hand at something ‘traditional’, as much as he could manage. In fact it feels much the same way Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea did to me: so rooted in something about classic filmmaking aesthetics from the last century, but not restricted by that style at all—the other filmmaker that I was most often reminded of was, truly, Brian Jordan Alvarez, creator of the webseries The Gay & Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo. Day-Drunk History of Siegfried Sassoon with Freckle. Wryly witty, deadpan bitchy, in just…the most homosexual manner.
Because although this is such a sad movie, a sort of war of attrition on someone’s aging heart, who has already been through war itself, I do just need to emphasize that while my favorite catty gay film critics had hinted at this, I had not expected that this movie is basically about catty gay film critics. Practically every character in this is either an artist or some sort of patron/producer/boytoy, has opinions, and is not above being petty. This movie is literally, at multiple points, just Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross strolling into a scene and making cutting remarks about a composer. It’s amazing really. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a period film with this particular energy before.
But while it can be very enjoyable in an “we’ve always been here” way, there’s also something deeply tragic in what Davies is presenting here about being a gay man in this milieu. Does the damage inflicted on you from a homophobic society make you cold? Does holding your tongue turn it sharp, for you to then turn them on each other? Why can’t Siegfried have a nice boy?
That is something interesting by the way: Benediction is HARSH on Stephen Tennant, which I hadn’t expected! The Bright Young Online Things do love to uwu a frail twink, but Davies is not so easily uwu’ed. I suspect that really neither the Sebastian Flyte version of him nor this film’s rather more Anthony Blanche version is fully true; that he, like all of us, was more somewhere in the middle. But I don’t mind what Davies does with his tall Stephen at all. It doesn’t come from nowhere—you look at some of the photographs of Stephen Tennant posing and you think, yeah that boy could probably be a terror. Gratefully I seem to be familiar enough with Siegfried Sassoon and his circle to love that the film just expects you’ll know who they all are—Wilfred Owen simply introducing himself by name landing with a soft little explosion in my heart; Sassoon exasperatedly sighing how much he hates Ivor Novello’s ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ having me chuckling in anticipation—but not so academically entrenched (pun intended, sorry to say) to have any compunction over their characters and timelines being adapted to portray new emotional through-lines for a new storyteller. The Regeneration priming, perhaps; that way Sassoon has become something of the Great War world of letters’ Billy Pilgrim, unstuck in lines.
I should mention though by the way, if we are going to slip academic for a second (always), that this movie genuinely starts at the just pre-war London production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, like the Modris Eksteins book on my shelf being brought to life. I hope my close personal friend, the one other person in the theater to see Benediction on the warm Tuesday evening four days after it opened, was too far away to note the way I reacted to this.
Alright, I think it’s time to lay this out now. I know this is a huge compliment, and I mean it to be: Jack Lowden in this is the only successor yet to James McAvoy in Atonement. This is an extraordinary performance, what he’s doing here is just…it’s special. He feels a little magic. Hoo boy, I’m trying to figure out how to talk about it! He portrays intelligence, a remarkably difficult thing to do, not just well but so well. Even when quiet, maybe especially when quiet, you can see how thoughtful he is, how he’s almost weighed down by it. And yet, so human, none of this precluding him in the slightest from missing things, making mistakes, failing, feeling, feeling something so much but being so unsure what to do—while the next minute he can take solace again in effortlessly coming up with the perfect barbed quip. Lowden looks nothing like Siegfried Sassoon, but he’ll also probably never look more beautiful, and that’s actually part of it, too. A strange, captured beauty is key to what both he and McAvoy are doing, a way of wearing a soldier’s uniform as if they’ve been caught in it, an emotional restraint coming from the serge cloth in. And when it lifts, it’s wet tears or a kind of trembled fury. They’re both Scottish, I’m just realizing—what water are they feeding them up there.
And when you place Jack Lowden’s 2nd Lieutenant Sassoon in front of Ben Daniels’ Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, my god. My god. I have such affection for Dr. Rivers, I have such affection for Ben Daniels, and the ideal match of this—I felt like my soul was trying to fly out of my body. Daniels has a way of sort of glowing, a feeling of understanding and safety coming off him like a soft light, which wounded younger characters want to curl up and warm themselves in. He’s also just innately recognizable as queer family, always. It takes all of a few seconds of standing at tired attention in front of him for the first time before Lowden’s Sassoon is subconsciously letting his stiffened joints loosen—and I love that you can see it’s subconscious! They won’t put voice to what they have in common until later, but it’s already working on Sassoon like a tonic. These two actors’ performance styles are perfectly pitched for each other, whole chords opening up between them as they just sit in each other’s presence, and that is both beautiful cinema and Siegfried Sassoon & Dr. Rivers exactly. I had a hand loosely curled between my heart and my throat.
It’s important too, I think, that they have a rapport at once through a shared sense of humor. I’m always talking about this, I know, but I think humor and joking is at times all we have to bolster ourselves against the pain, but also often an expression of it. There’s a feeling in Lowden’s performance sometimes like being able to snark with Robbie at the luncheon this weekend is maybe the only thing keeping him going, a sort of grateful desperation that at least they can be witty, even if he feels his chances for true love & kindness are slipping away. …You know, this keeps happening to me? I keep trying to talk about how funny some of the artistic commentary is in this movie, but within a moment have ended up somewhere terribly sad. That’s Benediction, darling!
Shall we end with some poetry? I think so. I have recently discovered Sassoon’s verse letter he wrote to his friend Robert Graves while feverish in hospital after his plan to be killed at the Front only nearly succeeded, and it is my new wholly favorite piece of writing of his, here it just is in full:
24 July, 1918 American Red Cross Hospital, No. 22
98-99 Lancaster Gate, W.2
I’d timed my death in action to the minute
(The Nation with my deathly verses in it).
The day told off–13–(the month July)–
The picture planned–O Threshold of the dark!
And then, the quivering songster failed to die
Because the bloody Bullet missed its mark.
Here I am; they would send me back–
Kind M.O. at Base; Sassoon’s morale grown slack;
Swallowed all his proud high thoughts and acquiesced.
O Gate of Lancaster, O Blightyland the Blessed.
No visitors allowed
Since Friends arrived in crowd–
Jabber–Gesture–Jabber–Gesture–Nerves went phut and
After the first afternoon when MarshMoonStreetMeiklejohn
Caused complications and set my brain a-hop;
Sleeplessexasperuicide, O Jesu make it stop!
But yesterday afternoon my reasoning Rivers ran solemnly in,
With peace in the pools of his spectacled eyes and a wisely
And I fished in that steady grey stream and decided that I
After all am no longer the Worm that refuses to die.
But a gallant and glorious lyrical soldier;
Bolder and bolder; as he gets older;
Shouting “Back to the Front
For a scrimmaging Stunt.”
(I wish the weather wouldn’t keep on getting colder.)
Yes, you can touch my Banker when you need him.
Why keep a Jewish friend unless you bleed him?
Oh yes, he’s doing very well and sleeps from Two till Four.
And there was Jolly Otterleen a knocking at the door,
But Matron says she mustn’t, not however loud she knocks
(Though she’s bags of golden Daisies and some Raspberries in a
Be admitted to the wonderful and wild and wobbly-witted
sarcastic soldier-poet with a plaster on his crown,
Who pretends he doesn’t know it (he’s the Topic of the Town).
My God, my God, I’m so excited; I’ve just had a letter
From Stable who’s commanding the Twenty-Fifth Battalion.
And my company, he tells me, doing better and better,
Pinched six Saxons after lunch,
And bagged machine-guns by the bunch.
But I–wasn’t there–
O blast it isn’t fair,
Because they’ll all be wondering why
Dotty Captain wasn’t standing by
When they came marching home.
But I don’t care; I made them love me
Although they didn’t want to do it, and I’ve sent them a
glorious Gramophone and God send you back to me
Over the green eviscerating sea–
And I’m ill and afraid to go back to them because those
five-nines are so damned awful.
When you think of them all bursting and you’re lying on your
With the books you loved and longed for on the table; and your
All crammed with village verses about Daffodils and Geese–
… O Jesu make it cease … .
O Rivers please take me. And make me
Go back to the war till it break me.
Some day my brain will go BANG,
And they’ll say what lovely faces were
The soldier-lads he sang.
Does this break your heart? What do I care?