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'Benediction' is a poetic look at the ill effects of war, and one told by a masterful filmmaker

Jack Lowden portrays British poet Siegfried Sassoon in the film "Benediction".
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Jack Lowden portrays British poet Siegfried Sassoon in the film "Benediction".

The new film Benediction is about the terrible effect of World War I on talented young artists, and by extension on everyone else. It’s written and directed by Terence Davies. KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz says Davies is one of the great poetical filmmakers.

When British filmmaker Terence Davies is on his game, his collages of archival images and sounds mixed with current pictures and sounds can take your breath away. In Benediction, Davies is on his game.

The movie is something of a biography of British poet Siegfried Sassoon, a man forever haunted by his time in the trenches of World War I. Sassoon came from wealth. He and his brother went off to war together; only Siegfried came home. He was decorated for bravery, but while still in uniform he wrote powerful anti-war poems and at least one letter castigating the military leadership and the government for waging a stupid war and wasting thousands of lives. That letter landed him in front of a military tribunal which then shipped Sassoon off to a mental hospital in Scotland. He was, of course fully sane.

Writer-director Terence Davies is the maker of at least two other masterpieces – Distant Voices/Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. He also made A Quiet Passion about the 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and Davies has a transcendent feel for the ecstatic combination of either music or poetry and visual images. Sassoon, played by the exceptional Jack Lowden, recites from an 1896 anti-war poem by A.E. Houseman combined with archival film of World War I troops marching to battle.

Lowden opens up Sassoon’s complicated, often tortured life. When Sassoon returns to England from the war, the surface of the story is about Sassoon’s search for love and some measure of fulfillment in his life. He has prominent lovers – the young poet Wilfred Owen who was soon killed in the war, the famous silent film star Ivor Novello, who comes off as a total rat. A famous society figure of the time, Stephen Tennant and Prince Philipp of Hesse. Yet, eventually, Sassoon marries a woman and has a son.

But while so much of the story is about Sassoon’s personal life, the film over and over cuts to footage of the war – soldiers walking into fire, the terrified faces of young men, dead bodies in the mud. As the film sees him, Sassoon never frees himself from the memory of the horrors of the war. These are black and white images of war scenes, and set against the color of the main story, the black and white feels ghostly and haunting, which is just what his memory does to Sassoon.

The pairing of visual pictures of war with scenes of failed loves makes for bitter moments. Sassoon and his friends are brilliant and thorough masters of language. Their angry outbursts shimmer with elegant British wit, sarcasm and the desire to hurt each other, just slightly veiled by the stunning barricades of language.

It’s dazzling and vicious. It’s also tremendously defensive. These talented young gay men, twisted by war and stymied by British law, armor themselves with intellect which rises up every time one of them betrays another. You can see how thoroughly Sassoon and his set fear being vulnerable. When the caustic Ivor Novello abandons Sassoon for another short-term affair, their verbal attacks are so imaginative, you struggle – as do they – to comprehend the emotional pain through the dance of language.

That’s the struggle of this film as well as other movies by Terence Davies, to find the genuine feeling behind the social barriers that block it. It’s there in the military tribunal, when Sassoon tries to get the officers to notice the insanity of the slaughter, and all they have to say is that Sassoon violates procedure. None of the prosecutors have been to the front, none of them know what it’s like up there – but they can agree that anyone who wants to tell that story must be silenced. But Benediction is as eloquent as film gets.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.