Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2021: "Benediction"

Michael Hayward

British filmmaker Terence Davies' new film, Benediction, is a portrait of poet Siegfried Sassoon. The film opens outside a concert hall in London in 1914, where Igor Stravinsky's galvanizing and controversial symphony "The Rite of Spring" is about to be performed. A narrative voiceover reads the opening stanza from Sassoon's poem "Concert Interpretation," about the symphony.

The pre-war years in England would have been a time of great excitement for writers such as Sassoon, young men whose all-consuming interest then was in literature, and the arts. The World War put an end to that period of hope and promise, as most young men of that generation heeded the patriotic call to enlist, and to go and fight overseas. Many of those young men died, and those who did not die were wounded, or had their spirits broken by what they had witnessed, and by what they had participated in, while fighting from the trenches.

Those who know Sassoon's name nowadays will likely know only that he was one of the group of "war poets," whose literary reputations were founded on their poems from the front describing battle, valour, and death. Some might still believe—wrongly—that Sassoon died during that conflict, along with Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), and Canadian poet John McCrae (1872-1918), author of "In Flanders Fields." But Sassoon survived the war, living to the age of 80, long enough to witness the decline in his reputation as a poet, and to see his fame eclipsed by others (in one scene late in the film, Sassoon expresses his envy and his bitterness at T. S. Eliot's high standing, and his Nobel prize).

Davies avoids the temptation to cover only that most familiar period in Sassoon's life, when he made a principled stand against the war, an opposition that could have resulted in his being tried for—and possibly shot for—treason (this incident was central to Pat Barker's 1991 novel Regeneration). Instead, Davies shows us both the younger poet (with Sassoon being played by Jack Lowden), and the older, embittered man he was later to become (Peter Capaldi plays the elder Sassoon). We see how Sassoon's vitality, and his promise, gradually fade away with the passing years.

Sassoon, a gay man, lived the greater part of his life in London during a time when homosexuality was a crime in Britain. Davies, who is also gay, gives us a film which is a heart-felt examination of what life in Britain was like for so many gay men of that era: the fear of exposure, the isolation, and the loneliness.

There are two in-theatre screenings of Benediction as part of VIFF 2021, on Thursday, October 7 and on Monday, October 11 at the Vancouver Playhouse. Benediction can also be streamed through the VIFF Connect app. See here for more information on the film. You can view a clip from Benediction here.



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