Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Dec 08, 2022 2:36 pm 
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Davies' portrait of the writer Siegfried Sassoon jumps from wartime forbearance to period gay sex to grim old age

This film about the horseman, poet, biographer, and soldier Siegfried Sassoon by Terrence Davies is a busy, varied portrait. Early on, in a quiet mood, it focuses on the man's involvement with WWI, but little is shown of the extraordinary combat experiences described in his Memoirs of an infantry Officer (1930), which followed his even more famous Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928): Davies doesn't have the budget for much more than a series of quiet scenes staged indoors and some handsome black and white period still photographs. He has the funds for dialogues in uniform, not battles. And after the War, he can follow Sassoon's affairs with men and highlights of the rest of his life. Sassoon is played by Jack Lowden, and when older, by Peter Capaldi. If you're patient, this is (in its main body) a catty, gossipy, very gay biopic full of some of the glittering, glamorous personalities of England in the l’entre-deux-guerres period of which, Davies shows, Siegfried Sassoon was very much a part. This is a busy, atmospheric film that glitters yet winds up seeming, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in his Guardian review, "uncompromisingly somber." Bradshaw quotes Enoch Powell's refrain, "I wish I had been killed in the war." That grim finale is considerably less convincing than the body of the film.

I fell asleep… Next morning he was dead;
And some Slight Wound lay smiling on the bed

This is quoted in Benediction from Siegfried Sassoon's poem "Died of Wounds" after a scene signaling Sassoon's awareness that Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), the finest war poet of the First World War, has died, two weeks before the war's end. They were together in a hospital for mental problems. They dance the tango together, stiffly, cheek to cheek. A priggish officer finds them disgusting: he thinks such men should "do the right thing" and "go into the library" and blow their brains out. Sassoon's distinguished doctor/consultant Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels) on the other hand, who says Sassoon should think of their sessions as "a cleansing of the soul," and covertly declares himself to be of the same persuasion, is of a different view. He also knows what Owen meant to Sassoon, who recognized the younger man's magnificent poetic gifts but also felt an enormous attachment and could not bear to see him sent back to the war.

Sassoon, who was thirty, received the Military Cross for his combat performance as a second lieutenant in WWI, but then after some time in hospital for an infection, refuses to go back. He writes a declaration that begins, "I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it." He finds the number of casualties unforgivable and unnecessary. (From elsewhere one knows he already held this view while at the front; that his anger at the injustice of combat had inspired him with a manic energy and courage that made his men trust him so much they felt unsafe without him.) An influential older friend and mentor, Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) intervenes to prevent Siegfried from being court marshaled, and instead he is sent to "dotty-ville," as he calls it. (The film never mentions Robert Graves, the war poet and important writer, a good friend of Sassoon's who was active in getting him excused from a court marshal.) He resents this protection, which robs him of the opportunity to make his views widely known. His younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli campaign.

All this and much, much more is presented in a succession of neat little scenes, almost like theatrical tableaux. This is Davies' way of depicting the restraint and elegance of the war period. The ordinary men behave as expected, but are superficial and contemptible. Sassoon was a little bit abrupt and jejune himself. Readers of his Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man will know that Sassoon spent the years before the war living the life of a country squire focused exclusively on sport and horsemanship, concerned only to get the funds for the next better horse. When the disdainful homophobic officer says he can't read Beowulf in the original, I wondered at the hint that Sassoon could, having never read about his two years at Clare College, Oxford. The film does not mention that he was descended on his father's side from a wealthy Baghdadi Jewish family.

Never mind; for Siegfried Sassoon the war is over, and a round of busy social and sexual scenes begin when he meets the well-known and popular musical theater actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine). It is odd after the genteel, serious war scenes to see him with someone so brittle and sarcastic. Glen Bynam Shaw (Tom Blyth) is Ivor's ex. Siegried's mother does not like Ivor, nor should she. We are into the bright young things now, in this period of "the more general kind" of gaiety and an explosion in modern art, alluded to when musical tastes are mentioned. A fairly accurate glimpse is provided of Edith Sitwell chanting a poem from "Facade," at Roos' urging, with music by "Willy Walton," though no one can mimic the voice of Miss Sitwell, not even she when she got old. Lady Ottoline Morrell (Suzanne Bertish) has Sassoon sleep over, but he shoos her out of his bedroom. He meets the eccentric gay socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch young, Anton Lesser, older).

These scenes are well done, tied together by jazz age manic energy and cruel witticisms, but, however entertaining, the film risks becoming not much more than a checklist of personalities of the period Sassoon knew. Alexander Fenton (David Shields) becomes his obvious replacement with the increasingly angry and temperamental Novello. One begins to think Davies has devoted too much screen time to this affair. The gay affairs were an important part of Sassoon's post-war life, but not the whole of it. The film is at much pains to show what a mistake the serious, upright Sassoon made in falling for the heartless, promiscuous Novello. Lowden is very good here as the irate and hurt Sassoon, classy but struggling to keep his cool.

The whirlwind swirls on: the moment Ivor and Siegfried break up in a restaurant, Glen, Ivor's ex, comes to give him an evening ride to Kent to visit his mother. Ivor's new squeeze is Bobby Andrews (Harry Lawtey). Glen gets married and suggests Siegfried should do so. He hooks up with Stephen Tennant - another high profile but questionable choice, this time one who has TB. But he also reencounters Hester Gatty (Gemma Jones), a girl he danced the Charleston with at a party. She has come down to Kent expressly, explicitly being a modern woman, to find him and have lunch with him. Later, after a lovely dance to a gramophone record, he pretend-proposes and she pretend-accepts. Stephen Tennant narcissistically admires himself in a mirror and the image morphs into his older self (Anton Lesser), preparing the way for a less successful later scene; these back-and-forth morphings of Young Things into their older, sadder selves become a rather tiresome obsession of the film.

Siegfried will eventually marry Hester and at the outset we have seen their adult son mock him for converting to Catholicism. The marriage is seen as unhappy and perhaps the late-life adoption of Catholicism (though it was the religion of his mother, not mentioned) as willful and desperate.

When Bradshaw says this film is "piercingly and almost unbearably about failure," that "the sadness is overwhelming," he is clearly reacting to the last twenty minutes. Davies' last ditch insistence that this is a life we are to take as sad was also the willful approach of the director's unfortunate but much praised 2016 film about Emily Dickinson A Quiet Passion. But Sassoon's "unhappy" affairs were with some of the most glamorous men of the time, including a German prince. He was highly accomplished, his memoirs and his poetry will endure, and at 65 he was appointed a Commander of the British Empire. Most of us would like such "failure." Davies' film is uneven. It is best when recreating the brittle "gaiety" of the postwar period. Its experiments with period war images work at the beginning but its collages of past and present at the end are overwrought.

Benediction, 135 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2021, playing at a somewhat mixed bag of a dozen other international festivals including London, Vienna and Thessaloniki. Limited US release June 3, 2022. Screened for this review via Amazon Dec. 7, 2022. Metacritic rating: 81%.

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