Got a minute and eighteen seconds? Give them to the trailer that Terence Davies has made for this year’s Viennale. The festival, running in the Austrian capital from October 21 through 31, will present a complete Davies retrospective, beginning with his early trilogy of short films. As Peter Bradshaw writes in the Guardian,Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) capture “a world of guilt, shame, and self-scrutiny in which possibilities of faith and beauty are reverently but painfully pursued.”
In the trailer, Jack Lowden, who plays Siegfried Sassoon in Davies’s new film Benediction, ascends the staircase of a modest home, presumably in Liverpool, where Davies grew up as the youngest of ten children of working-class Catholic parents. Over images of a cozy but empty sitting room, Davies, narrating, remembers his mother. “Sighs at midnight, her apron, her soft warm hands. All the ephemera of love.” Back on the staircase, Peter Capaldi, who plays the older Sassoon in Benediction, descends the stairs. The title of the trailer is But Why?
If you’ve got more than a minute, something closer to an hour, listen to Devika Girish’s utterly delightful interview with Davies for the Film Comment Podcast. Davies recites Shakespeare, chuckles at his lone gesture to the twenty-first century—he’s opened an Instagram account—and discusses his plans to adapt Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl, the novel published in 1982, forty years after the author’s death. The bulk of Girish and Davies’s conversation, though, is given over to Benediction.
Sassoon, one of the leading British poets of the First World War, joined the Army just days after war broke out in 1914, and two years later, he was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry. But in 1917, Sassoon threw the medal into the River Mersey and wrote an open letter to his commanding officer declaring that the war was being “deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it” and that he could “no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.” The letter ran in the London Times and was read out in the House of Commons.
For some, the letter was an act of treason. Friends arranged to keep Sassoon from being court-martialed by having him sent to a hospital near Edinburgh, where he was to recover from “shell shock.” It was there that he met the great unconsummated love of his life, the poet Wilfred Owen, played by Matthew Tennyson in Benediction. Despite carrying on with the likes of Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927), and socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch), the brightest of the Bright Young People, Sassoon internally raged against his homosexuality. In 1933, he married Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), and eventually, he converted to Roman Catholicism.
“Despite his large social network,” Davies tells Screen’s Wendy Mitchell, “the one thing that emerged was that what he’s looking for is salvation. And unfortunately, other people can’t give it to you, and neither can any institution—you’ve got to find that redemptive quality within yourself. I don’t think he ever found it. I don’t think I’ve found it, to be honest with you. But that was the underlying thing that moved me more than anything else, that he never found that salvation.”
Benediction is “structured like a regretful sigh, its disjointed scenes bound together by the anguish of lost time (much of what feels messy on first watch becomes poetic on the second),” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. This is also “by far” Davies’s “cattiest film, and therefore also one of his funniest.” As the young Sassoon, Jack Lowden “suggests wellsprings of deep melancholy even when lobbing conversational cherry bombs with the expert timing of an Oscar Wilde creation,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club.
In Slant, Keith Uhlich points out that a few of Davies’s previous films, such as his Edith Wharton adaptation The House of Mirth (2000) and the Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion (2016), “have dissected this kind of verbal mordancy, pinpointing it as an outgrowth of repression and oppression. And it’s particularly potent here since Benediction’s middle stretch is made up of almost nothing but repartee and putdowns. These young men mask their pain with badinage that’s humorous in small doses yet becomes dehumanizing as an all-hours way of life. The tragedy is that they don’t recognize the toll it’s taking.”
Peter Capaldi is charged with showing us the toll. When Sassoon’s son George (Richard Goulding) asks his father why he hates the modern world, the poet replies, “Because it’s younger than I am.” For Peter Bradshaw, Benediction is “a film which is piercingly and almost unbearably about failure: the catastrophic moral and spiritual failure of war which is aligned to Sassoon’s own terrible sense of personal shortcomings.”
As such, in Davies’s own estimation, Benediction is a success. “This is the first time,” he tells Wendy Mitchell, “of all the films I’ve made, where, if everybody hates it, I’ll still be able to say, ‘No, you’re wrong. This is good.’ I think it’s the best film I’ve made.” Benediction has premiered in Toronto and now heads to festivals in San Sebastián,Vancouver, and London.
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