Gay, British filmmaker Terence Davies has a longstanding fascination with literature.
For example, his movie adaptations of John Kennedy Toole’s “The Neon Bible” and Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth”). He’s also known for his movies about queer poets, including Emily Dickinson in 2016’s “A Quiet Passion,” as well as Siegfried Sassoon in his latest movie “Benediction” (Roadside Attractions).
Sassoon (played with sensitivity by Jack Lowden) established himself as an anti-war poet, writing about his horrific experiences on the Western Front as a soldier during WWI. While hospitalized with trench fever (“not fatal, just debilitating”), he writes a letter refusing to return to further military activity. As a soldier acting on behalf of other soldiers in what he sees as a war of aggression and conquest, he says he can longer be a party to the suffering.
Saved from being court-marshaled by his gay journalist friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), known for being a defender of writers, 30-year-old Siegfried is sent to a hospital for “nervous diseases” in Scotland. By this point, he is already a well-known writer. Fortunately for him, he becomes a patient of Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels), who is also secretly gay. It is at this hospital that Siegfried also meets and falls in love with poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson). In addition to being beautiful dance partners (the tango scene is not to be missed), they also become supporters of each other’s writing.
Owen is the first of Siegfried’s same-sex relationships depicted in “Benediction.” He was romantically involved with handsome and flamboyant singer and composer Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), Novello’s ex, the actor Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth), and socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). Siegfried eventually married a woman, Hester (Kate Phillips), who was well aware of his multiple relationships with men.
What sets “Benediction” apart from other recent period pieces (ahem, “Downton Abbey: A New Era”) is its narrowed focus on the lives of homosexual men in the post-WWI era. It also presents Davies’ gift for creating stunning visual scenarios. Not only does “Benediction” move back in forth in time between the 1910s and the years that followed, it also shows what became of Sassoon and (some) of the other characters later in life (he died in 1967). Additionally, the inclusion of vintage black and white period footage is incredibly effective.
“Benediction” is a good 20 minutes too long but is still worth seeing for the marvelous performances and the nuanced yet daring depiction of queer life at a time that is not often represented so fully on-screen.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of eight books including the poetry chapbook Fear of Muses (Souvenir Spoon Books, 2022). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.