How can they use such names and be not humble?
I have sat silent; angry at what they uttered.
The dead bequeathed them life; the dead have said
What these can only memorize and mumble.
No working director’s filmography depends on queer yearning and exquisite self-disgust like Terence Davies, and should you find another one, bap him with a monstrance. Since his 1988 debut Distant Voices, Still Lives, the Liverpudlian has mastered the dissolve and the pan, like Samuel Johnson did the rounded sentence, for the sake of a Sebaldian exercise in simultaneity, reverie, and sensuality. Wary of melodrama but eager to put up their dukes, Davies films at first seem as if they move like plays: a pair or trio of actors handles exposition, indulge in a tart exchange. Then his penchant for the voice-over, the recitation, and interweaving of archival footage erases the boundaries of conventional narrative cinema. Tormented by the past, recoiling from the present, his characters flagellate themselves for the opportunities they did realize. Always with Davies, a gay Catholic man, there’s the stink of the censer and the gleam of the chalice.
The wonder of Benediction is how funny it is. Perhaps making A Quiet Passion loosened Davies’ tie; that film, theoretically a biopic of Emily Dickinson, turned the great poet into a Restoration-worthy wit, in large part thanks to the casting of Cynthia Nixon. At Benediction‘s center is protagonist of similar mien: Siegfried Sassoon, decorated officer whose motives for opposing the Great War are misunderstood and his homosexuality a draught he has to chug in secret. Sassoon was neither the first nor last figure who renounced sodomy for the sake of a wife and the Church, but in its many tart exchanges between him and male lovers in drawing rooms and intimate chambers Benediction reflects the weariness of living on the, cough, fag ends of one’s intellectual resources despite their showing no signs of waning. Audiences will likely misunderstand this film, and it’s Davies’ best.
To establish the importance of male companionship to Sassoon, Benediction begins with a bravura sequence. Glimpses of Siegfried’s brother Hamo before his death in the Gallipoli campaign. A Diaghilev ballet set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring while Sassoon recites Concert-Interpretation non-diegetically as an intro to scratchy archival war footage. The absurdity of trench warfare disillusions him to such a degree that he writes his CO a protest letter: “I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authorities,” the winner of the Victoria Cross for bravery writes. Instead of a court-martial and a firing squad, he is sent to a military hospital for shellshock. A bigger shock is Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a second lieutenant with a mild stutter but already a composer of what will be the Great War’s most influential poetry, combining the precision of a casualty report with the eroticism of a Keats sonnet. A romance may or may not have developed; an elegiac overhead shot of the pair swimming suggests so.
Jack Lowden, who plays the young Sassoon, can’t speak without hissing. He has a hard glance and a haughty insolence. Yet when he reads Sassoon’s poetry in voice-over his mixture of tenderness and precision — they are the same thing — astonishes. He’ll need all his talents to maneuver through the battlefields of the postwar English homosexual underworld where every young-ish men boasts dark hair, swishes flutes of champagne, and speaks in barbed bon mots such as “Brevity is only cowardice in extremis” (Davies will have to explain that one). Falling in with Lady Ottoline Morrell‘s crowd, he finds himself the object of Ivor Novello’s lusts. This sometime actor (he appears in Hitchcock’s The Lodger) and composer of light supper club music of the kind that makes the old biddies titter beds Sassoon in record time. As played by Jeremy Irvine, he redefines “catty” for the ages. But their arrangement can’t survive his infidelities.
Sassoon moves on to a series of men (including Novello’s neglected ex), the most delicious of which is Stephan Tennant (a breathtaking Calam Lynch), brightest of the Bright Young Things immortalized by Evelyn Waugh; but all for nought. “You’re frittering your life away in pomades and powders!” Siegfried yells in frustration while Stephen primps in front of an obliging mirror (he’d previously accused Stephen’s hair of looking like topiary). Their affair ends too, precipitating such a diminution of a middle-aged Siegfried’s interest in men that he turns to Hester (Kate Phillips), in whom he confides his sexual peccadilloes with enough verve to eventually marry her. For his part, Stephen marries too; he lived long enough to become V.S. Pritchett’s landlord. Not a thing, still bright.
The shadows and honeyed autumnal hues with which master cinematographer Nicola Daley colors Benediction‘s last act stand in contrast to the ping-ponging rhythms of the second, but Davies is after something subtle: what we become happens suddenly enough to efface the awareness of what we were. Playing the older Siegfried and Stephen, Peter Capaldi and Anton Lesser, respectively, look like stolid burghers, the sorts of tubby pedants who populate Elizabeth Taylor novels. But always for Siegfried the memory of loss. It’s what the repartee was meant to assuage. Benediction segues, gently, into one of the best depictions of wit as sabre and shield, the former cutting subject and object, as it must during a historical moment when homosexuals risked arrest. By periodically cutting or dissolving to flashbacks of young Siegfried in wartime in combat, Davies postulates that for men like him and Novello the years entre les guerres proved as deadly a minefield as the Somme; for gay men, the mid century was — in every sense — a No Man’s Land.
To suggest these phenomena in filmic terms risks losing the audience’s attention, but Davies’ admixture of genres keeps us at a remove; we assess Siegfried Sassoon as historical personage for whom we feel at first pity, amusement, and, as the old stiff-spined man dominates Benediction‘s closing minutes, at last, terror. Wandering through received images of a life now best suited as the material of art, Siegfried hears the long-dead Owen’s “Disabled” in his head. “Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes/Passed from him to the strong men that were whole,” Lowden reads as if at Delphi. Few filmmakers have methods which embody so richly what a contemporary of Sassoon’s would have called the state where “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future.” 2015’s Sunset Song came close in its own valedictory scenes, but Davies couldn’t pull it together; the film ended too abruptly for the characters’ metamorphoses to make sense. With Benediction, Davies perfects his comedy, earns the title’s Catholic religio-mystic overtones, and offers a film ideal for a Pride month suffused with wickedness if not despondency.