Benediction – Toronto 2021

Benediction. Courtesy of TIFF.

Benediction is a portrait of World War I poet/anti-war activist, Siegfried Sassoon, who lived during an era when being gay was unacceptable.

Terence Davies takes a look at Siegfried Sassoon’s life, both as a young man (Jack Lowden) and in his later years (Peter Capaldi). If you were worried that the film might make an attempt to straightwash his life, you have nothing to worry about. This is a complex role in any way you look at it. Sassoon’s efforts on the Western Front would earn him the Military Cross. However, the horrors he witnessed would lead him to take an anti-war stance. Put it this way: instead of a court-martial, he was diagnosed with “shell shock.” Sending him to Craiglockhart may have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This is where Sassoon would meet W.H.R. Rivers (Ben Daniels), a doctor, and Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). Call it fate or whatever that Sassoon met both people because it marked a turning point in his life.

If not for meeting Owen, perhaps Siegfried Sassoon doesn’t become the poet he does. But Sassoon’s sexuality would pose a problem during an era in which same-sex attraction was unacceptable. Sure, things would be different come the early 2000s but this wasn’t the case a century ago. He would look to religion in the form of converting to Catholicism and marriage but obviously, the affairs with men would continue. But anyway, I do not feel the need to rehash his biography here.

This is a film that could not be made during World War II. I say this only because the world was at war again. Take Sergeant York, for instance. That is a film that had to change some of Alvin York’s story as to to drum up interest for intervention. He, too, became an anti-war activist despite his bravery in action. Alas, I’m not here to talk about the Alvin York picture although they make for an interesting study in and of itself.

Benediction is a long film at over two hours and feels every minute of its run time. The joys of watching from home, am I right? It isn’t as long as some of the other films playing Toronto. However, I would suggest keeping this one on your radar if you pass on seeing it during the festival. I want to stress that it is not a bad film. Watching from home just makes the films with slow-pacing feel even slower. You’ll still learn something from watching the film. To each their own.

Biopics traditionally have a problem in focusing on way too many years. It is also true with Benediction in that writer-director Terence Davies makes sure to span the poet’s life. One look at the cast will tell you that they are have actors to play both the younger and older versions. We see this not just with Sassoon but also with his second wife, Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones). There’s no denying that Davies puts in the work–what with reading three biographies and all. Siegfried Sassoon is a complex guy and both Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi display this in their best efforts. But at the end of the day, Benediction needs to narrow down the time span but doesn’t do so. Honestly, this should be a two or three-part film. All the talk about Dune being two films but really, Benediction should be two or three films.

CAST: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Kate Phillips, Geraldine James, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Bertish, Matthew Tennyson, Julian Sands, Lia Williams, Richard Goulding, Jude Akuwudike, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels

Benediction holds its world premiere during the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations program.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.