If Great Britain has had any kind of media fatigue, it’s been centric to its participation in the World Wars. A country that has a strengthened yet undefined relationship with its veterans, the public is only too happy to continually revel in the past. Benediction is another entry into the cinematic wartime canon, infusing the LGBT+ history of soldier-turned-poet Siegfried Sassoon into the broader spectrum of the first World War. While the overdue inclusion of the country’s rich queer history makes for satisfying viewing, the film falls into the overall abyss of wartime depression.
At the turn of the first World War, a young Siegfried Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is sent to a psychiatric facility for his newfound anti-war stance. While there he experiences a crisis in faith, simultaneously having affairs with many men while remaining closeted. Adored by the aristocracy thanks to this literary work, Sassoon is frequently plagued by sorrow and survivor’s guilt.
For those that attended a British comprehensive secondary school, watching Benediction is a familiar setting. Akin to the dated VHS tapes played by a substitute history teacher to quiet a rowdy bunch of teens, Davies’ lens on the queer male experience in the 1910s is most certainly an acquired taste. Often stagnant in its visual presence, the narrative repeatedly feels lost in translation, taking over half an hour to fully form itself and take hold. There’s a certain homemade quality to the rest of its cinematography, and while that’s not necessarily a negative, it takes the mind’s eye out of the story. Potentially pivotal scenes set in the doctor’s office feel stuck in a sense of time, not driving the story forward enough for audiences to hold out emotional empathy.
What can’t be faulted is the ensemble performance. The two parallel life journeys that co-exist without directly influencing the other are questionable, yet both Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi’s embodiments of Sassoon are remarkable. Lowden takes the quintessential hallmarks of a 1900s soldier and runs with it head-on into a frenzy of queer lust and scandal. Its supporting cast is just as impeccable, with Jeremy Irvine’s portrayal of Robbie Ross a particular one to watch. In the saddening moments of wartime bleakness, hope holds out in the form of performance.
For those that have a particular aversion to war films, Benediction is sadly still one to be missed. The contemporary addition of Sassoon’s LGBT background is to be highly praised, yet the overall effect lacks the emotional punch in a wider mainstream context.
WRITER/DIRECTOR: Terence Davis
STARS: Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Calam Lynch