How many trees have died just so poets can spread emptiness across pages? The extravagance of white space, with stanzas standing as tiny islands inside seas of it, waves of desolation closing in at all sides. But that space also serves its purpose—if words form questions then the emptiness their replies. Great stiff pauses for contemplation, where meaning hovers over our heads apparition-like, spelling and respelling itself in the clouds. I see a beetle or I see a banana; a soldier suffocating in the mud. And I don’t think there’s any filmmaker more suited to the contradictory and expansive silence of poetry than Terence Davies, whose latest poet biopic Benediction—coming five years after he took on Emily Dickinson in the masterfully delicate A Quiet Passion—focuses its sighs (and sights) on WWI-era gay poet Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon was himself a master at capturing all War was not good for, only to then proceed blithely, spiritedly, towards his own self-destruction, going about his personal business as softly as an atom bomb. Benediction sweeps back and forth between the poet’s life as a young man—where he is played with a keenly observed sense of mounting desperation at all life does not have to offer by Jack Lowden—and then unto the further end of his days, where Peter Capaldi shows us the man closed off and cracking beneath all the weight of it. The empty spaces, the regrets, the nasty remembrances and mistakes, the lost twangs of love—compromise and impossibility, the preposterous number of lives un-lived and paths severed off at the root. You know—all of it. At a certain point it all becomes too much and you have to just laugh, or smile, sing or something.
Benediction, this quietly passionate, beautiful and sad thing, drips with Britishness; like all Davies’ films you can practically hear a pipe leaking somewhere; the scrape of a fat substance over tough bread. Stone walls and frilly little doily-things sitting under silver framed photographs on impossibly perched side table stands. Inside opera maybe, but people sing drunken songs together outside on the street, war-time ditties, sloshed beer in their mugs under half-lamped dark passages. Davies has wandered these same places for decades, documenting them with a tender and affectionate and appropriately distant touch, always a couple of steps removed—consider it just more pauses for contemplation. The archness of observation; bringing the past back from the dead demands room to breathe.
When we first meet Sassoon he’s about to head off to the so-called Great War with his brother—the war then passes by in quick minutes, flashes of stock footage awash in mud, horror, black and gray skies split by explosions. And out the other side of it Sassoon spills, brother-less, a different person. “O but everyone was a bird / And the song was wordless / the singing will never be done,” the poet wrote in 1919, and Davies skillfully as ever shows how the weight of all this unsung music infiltrates and picks apart his being, piece by piece, day after catastrophic day. Slippage through crevasse, the stone dissolved at the inside. He can turn things into poetry but he can’t speak his self into existence.
If this all sounds joyless, please, far from it! This is probably Davies’ funniest film to date, with Sassoon and his queer compatriots catting each other up to ribbons, their too-educated bon mots disguising the worlds of pain underneath with feathers, silk fabrics, a smoky eye and well-timed sneer. A parade of bad-for-him and vice versa lovers, all of them bound together by their shadowy lifestyle into an incestuous pit of exhaustingly overlapping romances, comes and goes, ebbs and flows, passing partners around like champagne flutes and cigarette holders. Most memorably among them floats the never-silent-enough actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), impervious to the touch, who slices helpless amours open with his sharp jaw and bottomless spite. You can see the disaster he spells for poor Siggy from first glance, from outer space, and yet you’d have left the room with him too, don’t deny it.
Time and again Sassoon looks for redemption, begs for it, but from what sins he can’t seem to say; a confused sense only too grotesquely familiar to all of us whose intimacies were long shunned from the speak of polite society. One moment reverberates—an immediately post-war unrequited romance with another great war-poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) as they’re both locked up for deviance and defiance. They find fast tenderness in each other’s presence, a thrum of commiseration, but neither can seem to touch the other—there’s a glorious shot of them overlapping inside a swimming pool, erotic in its enormous restraint—and all that’s over before it can even begin. Siegfried knows who is he and knows what he wants and yet is paralyzed by its enormity in that moment all the same, and it’s that inability, an infernal hesitation, that seems to eat him all the way up as clueless life meanders along dopily before him. You can only see the dumbness of your fears once the danger’s dulled by distance; distance that finds it much too late to mean much by then.
As an old man Sassoon’s son asks him why he hates this modern world and Sassoon replies, “Because it’s younger than I am,” and it’s no surprise it’s the ghosts of his youth that swarm him in his end. Futureless and apple-cheeked they retain such possibility, so much possibility, not having carved off the pieces we must carve off to make it by another day after day, another year after year, doing the best-worst we can in every moment. Benediction, exquisite and devastating, finds Davies rendering this process as a storm of inadequate absolutions; desperate stabs at redemption that only leave wounds, aches, impressionist impressions on the blank white pages, the so many blank pages, that we’ve just managed to scribble a little, too little, in behind as we go. Still, there’s so much beauty in it.
Image sources (in order of posting): Bankside Films,