Most biopics are thuddingly prosaic: There’s a lot of “this happened, then that happened,” performed by a famous person covering themselves in latex in an attempt to resemble another famous person.
In the hands of British auteur Terence Davies, however, biopics can be poetry, although his choice of subject matter probably helps in that department. On the heels of his gorgeous and contemplative “A Quiet Passion,” on the life of Emily Dickinson, he returns with another passionately quiet portrait, this time exploring Siegfried Sassoon in “Benediction.”
It’s an impressionistic collage, and Davies skillfully jumps from the 1910s to the 1960s and back again. “Benediction” fleetingly encapsulates the horrors of WWI — Sassoon went from being a decorated soldier to an outspoken critic against those who would prolong the conflict — the shadow-world of British gay men in the decades before homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK, and the bitterness of an older man literally chasing after grace with a late-in-life conversion to Catholicism.
When young Siegfried (Jack Lowden, “Fighting With My Family”) discards his Military Cross and pens a blistering letter about the exploitive nature of the war, friends in power have him declared mentally unfit to keep him from facing a firing squad for treason. At the hospital, he’s treated by the compassionate Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels, “The Crown”) and falls in love with fellow patient Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), with Sassoon and Owen encouraging each other’s work before Owen is sent back to the front lines.
(It says a great deal about Davies’ style that the Chekhov’s gun in this film is a poem, namely Owen’s “Disabled,” which Sassoon reads to himself early in the film but doesn’t share with the audience until the final moments, with devastating poignancy.)
After the war, Sassoon mingles in London’s toniest literary circles, with a cadre of friends that include Oscar Wilde contemporary Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale, “The Death of Stalin”) and Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams). Sassoon’s lovers tend to be well-known as well, from popular music star Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) to Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch, “Bridgerton”), doyen of the era’s “Bright Young Things.”
The name-dropping does get a bit fast and furious for those not up on their literary-society figures of Britain between the wars — there’s a somewhat awkward introduction of T.E. Lawrence at one point — but Sassoon led the kind of life that brought him into constant contact with the glitterati of the moment. And while there’s an entire sub-genre of media about the rich and beautiful gay men of the era forced by society into the closet (“Maurice,” “Brideshead Revisited”), the inclusion of Ross as a fairly major character helps to underscore the cultural context; the Wilde trial, after all, had taken place in 1895, a recent memory for this entire generation.
It’s a portrait of dreams dashed and emotional potential unfulfilled. Peter Capaldi takes the reins as an older Sassoon, bitterly dissatisfied with his conformist marriage to Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, then Gemma Jones). As with most biopics, “Benediction” doesn’t get to everything (notably his separation from Hester and later friendship with E.M. Forster), but everything that Davies includes creates a full emotional portrait.
Anyone making a biographical film would be well advised to study “Benediction,” particularly the ways that Davies and editor Alex Mackie (“Mary Shelley”) and cinematographer Nicola Daley (“Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards”) hop back and forth in time, using documentary WWI footage and other visual and audio memory triggers to connect disparate points of Sassoon’s life. These transitions are handled with a graceful elegance that gently underscores the melancholy tone.
The performances are uniformly excellent, but Lowden is undoubtedly the standout. He takes the uniquely British conflict between passion and formality, fury and etiquette, and gives it vivid life. With so many literal waxworks taking home awards for their grotesque turns in lesser films, Lowden’s subtle work here is a reminder of the power of precision underscored by pain.
The act of writing has tended to be flagrantly non-cinematic, but with these last two films, Davies proves that the internal life of the mind can indeed be explored and portrayed in a visual medium. With every scene a stanza, “Benediction” is a lyrical triumph.
“Benediction” opens in US theaters June 3.