“Are you searching for truth?” “Isn’t everyone?” “And if you find it, what then?”
In Benediction, from director Terence Davies, we follow 20th century poet Siegfried Sassoon in his search for … well, maybe truth, but often happiness, belonging, and some sense of permanence and perhaps even the eternal.
The film opens with an extended prologue that, through voice over, leads us through the early romantic views about World War I (“God was in his heaven and there were sausages for breakfast”). It continues with Sassoon’s (Jack Lowden) disillusionment with the seemingly unending war. He has written a letter to his unit refusing any future participation. Connected friends and family arrange to avoid a court martial by having him sent to a military psychiatric hospital. We then jump ahead to see a much older Sassoon (Peter Capaldi) as he prepares to be received into the Catholic Church.
The bulk of the film follows Sassoon through his time in the hospital and into his post-war years. In the hospital he meets and falls in love with Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), another World War I poet. In time, Owen is deemed fit to return to duty and is killed near the end of the war. After the war, Sassoon goes through a series of lovers. He is usually more committed to them than they are him. Key among these is famed actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), a witty, but malicious egotist. In many ways his life in society is satisfying, but he never seems to find real fulfilment.
Sassoon in this film has a strong sense of morality, but he is also constrained by the times and the mores of society. His life is a struggle between conforming to society and his non-conforming life as a non-combatant and as a gay man. The same-sex relationships were illegal at the time, but they were essentially an open secret. He could never really be secure in such a world. This led him, in time, to marrying and having a family, but even that never really fulfilled him.
When the film returns to the older Sassoon, he is bitter and disappointed. When a former lover comes to see him, Sassoon greets him with scorn. When his son seeks to help him, he lashes out. When Sassoon laments never having been recognized, his son notes, “Most people live for the moment; you live for eternity.”
The scene in the prologue that shows him preparing to join the Church hints that there is a spiritual nature to his search for meaning throughout his life. He is very much an example of the Lost Generation—shaped by World War I and the existential crisis it presented. When we see him so late in life looking to religion as a possible source of meaning, we get the feeling that it is, for him, a last resort. Except for that early scene, the film doesn’t explore that spiritual journey and how it may or may not have brought some sense of fulfilment or redemption to him.
The film concludes fittingly with a poem. But it is not one of Sassoon’s, but “Disabled” by Wilfred Owen. Owen shares the poem with Sassoon while they are in the hospital. We don’t hear the poem then, but Sassoon acknowledges the power of the poem. As the film ends, we hear the poem in voice over and recognize that even though Sassoon and others may have come out of the war without external wounds, they are just as damaged as those who may have lost limbs. We see that Sassoon has lived his life with a disability that most could never see.
Benediction is streaming on Hulu.