The opening scenes of “Benediction” set up a tone of memory or even dream. It opens with Sassoon (a stunning Jack Lowden, doing easily the best work of his career) and his brother attending a symphony before shifting to footage of the growing World War I, to which both men will soon be shipped. Only one will return. Sassoon comes back with deep trauma that sends him to a Scottish hospital to recover. Davies layers Sassoon’s poetry read aloud by Lowden with archival, grainy footage from the war, enhancing a sense of detached lyricism, and yet he also doesn’t forget to give it all an emotional undercurrent. It’s there in Sassoon’s impassioned criticism of the war and in the way he forms bonds with his doctor and another patient and fellow poet named Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson).
After the war, Sassoon’s life becomes a series of romances, including a notable one with someone who seems to be his opposite, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), who Sassoon’s mother calls “amusing but unpleasant.” Sassoon seems to be consistently drawn to men who criticize and almost emotionally abuse him, as if he thinks he deserves it. Years later, we meet Sassoon as an older man, played by Peter Capaldi, who is converting to Catholicism and tells his son that he’s seeking something “unchanging.” Sassoon’s life has been one of inconsistency, questioning his sexuality, place in society, and artistic ability. It makes sense that he would try to find stability before he no longer has a chance to search for it.
“Benediction” is a story of the impactful moments and relationships in our lives, the ones that a poet like Sassoon (and Davies) turns into art. But it’s also about what’s lost over the course of a life—a brother and a lover to war, a partner to his career, an artistic passion to the pain of the world. It is a gorgeous, lyrical, moving film. We should expect nothing less from Terence Davies.
While Davies has been something of a celebrity at TIFF for the right people—his films regularly premiere there—the event is still one of the biggest of the year for more traditional red carpet names like Jessica Chastain, here with two films this year. “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” is the more traditional of the two (and my review will run tomorrow along with an interview with the star by Nell Minow), but it actually follows a very different world premiere in that of John Michael McDonagh’s adaptation of “The Forgiven” by Lawrence Osborne. A tense study of culture clashes in the Moroccan desert, it features a very strong ensemble who struggle to hold together one of McDonagh’s thinner scripts. The result is a film that struggles to find its identity, lacking the real teeth that it promises in its set-up as it loses its way in the sand.