A glidingly elegant, emotionally ransacking story of queerness, repression and the past – in other words, a Terence Davies film – this Siegfried Sassoon biopic reaches out beyond the war poetry to carry on its shoulders a gay artist forced to hide his true nature.
The excellent Jack Lowden (Mary Queen of Scots) plays Sassoon as a man haunted by the trenches, who bed-hops around the Bright Young Things of the ’20s but finds joy and peace elusive. Peter Capaldi plays the older, embittered version, who turns to religion for meaning.
The film belongs more to the former than the latter, but the pair’s performances synch up neatly: the seeds of the older Sassoon’s jaundiced nature, manifest in his cutting relationship with his grown-up son, are sewn in the young poet’s disenchantment with post-war life, heartbreak and a hint of survivor’s guilt.
Those scenes yield some of the sharpest lines in a film blessed with dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel. The pin-sharp script is a welcome reminder of just what a great writer Davies is. ‘Your poetry has gone from the sublime to the meticulous,’ arch songwriter Ivor Novello stingingly observes of Sassoon. His film he balances heavy themes of trauma, sexuality and faith with the champagne fizz of a London society that just wants to forget everything.
It's blessed with dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel
Thanks to Lowden’s clever and subtle performance, you can feel Sassoon’s self-awareness and discomfort as he parties with devil-may-care socialites like Novello (Jeremy Irvine, terrific) and Stephen Tennant (a revelatory Calam Lynch). He’s becoming a drag for these hedonist gadabouts, a Bright Young Thing with the dimmer on. One great scene has him delivering an acidic poem about frivolous socialisers to a room full of partygoers. Davies lets you feel the air turning to ice.
Indeed, the gifted cast is cannily picked to inhabit Benediction’s ensemble of Edwardian notables: from Simon Russell Beale as Sassoon’s avuncular guardian angle, Robbie Ross, to Kate Phillips as the artist Hester Gatty, the woman he’d end up marrying.
A benediction is a prayer for divine help. For any lover of beautifully crafted cinema with real emotional charge, Davies’s latest will feel a lot like an answer.
In UK cinemas Fri May 13.