Whilst poetry today is normally consigned to the specialist sections of bookstores, if stocked at all, at the time of World War I it was still popular. Especially in the upper echelons of society. There were more than two thousand war poets from Britain and Ireland alone and their verses in many ways brought the horrors of trench warfare to life for an unsuspecting public. One of the most famous was Siegfried Sassoon. His story is told in Benediction.
Decorated for bravery on the Western Front, Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) gained the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ for his almost suicidal exploits. While convalescing in Oxford from a bout of gastric fever, he struggles to come to terms with his grief of losing a close friend. Upon recovery, he declines to return to active service and his anti-war stance leads to him being sent to Craiglockhart for psychiatric treatment. This is where he meets fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) while being treated by Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels).
Benediction explores Sassoon’s life from his first stint in hospital until old age, told in a non-linear format as more of a stream of consciousness than coherent narrative. Director Terence Davies gets under the poet’s skin, focussing on his mental scars and struggles with sexual identity which eventually manifest themselves in an attempt to find solace in religion and marriage. Benediction takes an unusual approach to biographical filmmaking, using key events and relationships at catalysts to dig deeper. It takes a little getting used to, but is a fine piece of cinema.
Benediction screens at Toronto International Film Festival.