None That Go Return Again
By Michael Koresky
Dir. Terence Davies, U.K., Roadside Attractions
Though Terence Davies has never made films one would claim are easy on the viewer, he has always made it easy for us to find him in them, etching himself on almost every frame. The artist is most certainly present in the painful exorcisms of his earliest works, whether as embodied by the miserably static character Robert Tucker in his gut-punch trilogy of shorts, Children, Madonna and Child, and Death and Transfiguration, or as a disembodied hovering presence reckoning with his family’s legacy of horrific paternal abuse in Distant Voices, Still Lives. In the less violent but almost unbearably poignant The Long Day Closes, he’s there, of course, as Bud, the prepubescent Liverpudlian experiencing fleeting joy before the sun sets on what might be his last traces of true happiness. Yet even after his string of fictionalized autobiographical films, Davies has, since 1995’s The Neon Bible, adapted works featuring surrogates whose experiences allow him to come to terms—philosophical, aesthetic, moral, sexual, always personal—with a world that has too often betrayed, disappointed, and made shame out of beauty.
Most frequently these characters have been women, and in each of the most memorable of these (Emily Dickinson, The House of Mirth’s Lily Bart, The Deep Blue Sea’s Hester Collyer) he conducts a miraculous inhabitation, finding within their often self-imposed isolation or refusal to play by established societal rules a forceful parallel to his own experiences as a gay man in mid-century England, where homosexual activity was outlawed until 1967. While his superlative adaptation of The House of Mirth showed his affinity with Edith Wharton’s sly verbal jousting and gamesmanship, his most recent works, biographical films about poets, have been entirely original screenplays and have increasingly revealed Davies’s protean, Wildean artistic nature. With A Quiet Passion, he interpreted the life of Emily Dickinson as one of a distinctly Daviesian inner torment; the New England poet registers, through Cynthia Nixon’s exquisite modulation and Davies’s forceful calmness, as racked by the kind of moral indignation, existential anguish, and spiritual frustrations that the lapsed Catholic filmmaker has been exploring for years. Visually and structurally, A Quiet Passion is extraordinary and somber, a film of encroaching shadows and creeping dread, of creation and mortality, that culminates in a second hour of physical and emotional isolation, and which uses Dickinson’s poems as though music drifting across the soundtrack as accompaniment or interlude.
Davies’s latest film, Benediction, takes a similarly musical but structurally and formally different approach to the life of the poetic mind. In dramatizing the psychological torments of the early twentieth-century British poet Siegfried Sassoon, Davies has created an elegy to the mortal flesh of young men. The film is haunted throughout by Sassoon’s traumatizing experiences fighting in the first World War and is unbound by the constraints—or mercies—of time. A vocal pacifist and war protestor, as well as a gay man who had multiple affairs with men of the post-WWI English elite, Sassoon is a gripping and apt figure for Davies, for their divergences as much as their parallels. Unlike Davies, so sharply and clearly defined by his working-class upbringing, Sassoon came and benefited from a world of privilege and influence, his class inoculating him from the kinds of legal punishments that gay men from less monied backgrounds would likely be subject to. Davies does not depict Sassoon as blind to his privilege, however, as expressed in an early scene in which he angrily pushes back against a powerful friend, the literary critic and former Oscar Wilde paramour Robbie Ross, played by Simon Russell Beale; Robbie is willing to speak on his behalf to Winston Churchill's private secretary to avoid punishment—and possible death—for refusing to return to the German front, an assistance Sassoon finds distasteful.
The filmmaker has again found a character who appears eminently compatible with his own perspectives and sympathies, though for the first time he’s using a gay male historical figure. As portrayed, initially by the appealing and empathetic Jack Lowden and then by the haggard and dour Peter Capaldi, Sassoon is a man who hasn’t merely “seen too much,” but one for whom the world is too much. Benediction isn’t designed as a conventional biopic but rather an inquiry into how one reconciles the artistic impulse—the need to find grace and beauty—with the horrors of the callow reality in which we live. Throughout, Davies constantly reminds the viewer that we carry all our experiences with us, making them forever a part of who we are, and that this is crucial to art as well. It’s notable that the film opens in London 1914 at a performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring,” the epochal avant-garde ballet that reconfigured the idea of the modern. The performance, attended by Sassoon, inspired him to write a tribute in verse, “Concert-Interpretation.”
Bassoons begin… Sonority envelops
Our auditory innocence; and brings
To me, I must admit, some drift of things
Omnific, seminal, and adolescent.
Here, in a moment reminiscent of Davies’s beckoning opening from his 2008 documentary Of Time and the City, he raises the curtain. Only we do not see an orchestra or a troupe of ballet dancers at the ready. Instead, Davies projects images of—and projects us into—Sassoon’s world, using archival black-and-white footage of the city and the people within in: Londoners dressed in Sunday best, oars gliding through glistening sun-dappled waters. Davies omits the next line from “Concert-Interpretation,” though it would have been apt: “Polyphone through dissonance develops/A serpent-conscious Eden, crude but pleasant.” For this is a kind of paradise, and a serpent—the war—lies in wait. Lines from other poems begin to mingle and converge in Sassoon’s voiceover, concluding over images of young male conscripts lining up and “Your Country Needs YOU” banners: “And in small recruiting offices dull young men wait to inscribe (in paper quires) the names of the living and the dead.” Soon, the idyll is gone, replaced by footage from the war itself—men engulfed in the smoke of battle, endless rows of dead bodies covered in rude tarpaulin—accompanied by lines from A. E. Houseman’s “A Shropshire Lad” (“Lovely lads and dead and rotten; none that go return again.”) In this brief introduction, Davies at once establishes his film’s aesthetic, historical, and psychological aims: like its main character, Benediction will be a film touched by art and war, poetry and music, love and death, not in succession, but all at once.
While long sections of the film take place more or less in linear order, like so many of Davies’s films, especially his earlier ones—the ones most given to the whims and shocks of memory and trauma—Benediction follows its own path through time, jumping ahead and back when it deems necessary. Disconcertingly soon after we get our bearings with Lowden’s fresh-faced, cheerfully handsome Sassoon on the brink of being shipped off to war, Davies skips to Capaldi’s glowering past-middle-age incarnation, a craggy and unrecognizable replacement, in the midst of converting to Catholicism. “Release me from the imprisonment of doubt,” he whispers in voiceover as the priest enshrouds him in incense, and one cannot help but feel despair: Davies has often spoken of the Church’s supreme failure in granting him any succor from pain and doubt. When we return to young Siegfried, we thus know his spiritual fate is sealed.
Just as he blurs boundaries between past and present, Davies moves from Sassoon’s poetry to protest (in the form of his strongly stated refusal to return to battle), expressing the sometimes invisible line between the two in a world where violence is the standard. Forcefully stating his belief that the war has become one of “aggression and conquest,” Sassoon is diagnosed by his superiors as “unfit to be trusted with men’s lives” and, after serving 13 months as a soldier, is ordered to the Craiglockhart war hospital in Edinburgh to convalesce from his “nervous debility.” His stint under doctor’s orders proves transformative, a revelation on multiple fronts despite the punitive nature of his stay. Here, he meets two other crucial “delicate” men: the chief psychiatrist Dr. Rivers (an avuncular, compassionate Ben Daniels), who sympathetically picks up on Sassoon’s queerness amidst evasive, amusingly combative tête-à -têtes; and neurasthenic fellow patient Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), at Craiglockhart for shell shock. Sassoon’s protective, perhaps romantic feelings for Owen reflect both a sexual and creative symbiosis: theirs is a meeting of poetic souls as much as tentative sexuality. Despite being killed in battle in 1918 at age 25—a week before the war ends, the film reminds us—Owen would be among the most saluted British poets of his time, his work later inspiring Benjamin Britten to write his “War Requiem” (which in turn inspired Derek Jarman to make his film of the same name in 1989, thus placing Owen in a multigenerational 20th-century queer artistic lineage).
In one of the film’s more remarkable passages, Owen hands a draft of work to Sassoon to read and give feedback. Davies holds on Sassoon as he silently reads, for nearly 30 long seconds, a poem called “Disabled.” Lowden’s face falls, lost in thought, stricken by its power, leveled by art. There’s a similar scene in A Quiet Passion in which Dickinson allows her unrequited love, Reverend Wadsworth, to read one of her poems. Without music or dialogue, Davies stays on her, following her across a backyard garden and tracking in on her face as she tentatively, breathlessly awaits his response. Though she writes poems as private thoughts, images and ideas to be locked away in her heart, she, like any human, craves approbation. In both moments, Davies shows the moments of anticipation and neediness that mark any artistic process—the union between audience and artist, between minds and souls, and the connection that writing is meant to foster. In this scene, we do not hear or read the words of “Disabled,” we just see the human compassion and awe it elicits in Sassoon as he sits by a window, quietly illuminated like a subject in a Hammershøi or Vermeer. (The splendid cinematography is by Davies's first-time collaborator Nicola Daley.) It’s also a perfectly tailored moment for Lowden, who plays Sassoon with a constant searching, bare-breasted bedevilment—throughout the film we might catch a glimpse of his lips moving silently between phrases, always looking for the right words. Only later, in probably one of the greatest final scenes of Davies’s career, will we be invited to listen to “Disabled” and comprehend its wider meaning for Sassoon.
Davies’s cinema has always been one of interludes, of visual drift, of drawn-out silences, of flourishes that feel like moments of grace. While Benediction follows The House of Mirth and A Quiet Passion as a conversation-heavy “parlor room” drama, it’s constantly buffeted by either tender transitions, such as delicate dissolves to cherry blossoms or a rain-soaked tennis court—reminders of a resplendent if indifferent natural world—or rude intrusions, as when the war returns as a barely repressed specter, photographs of graves or young men’s corpses or wooden crosses projected onto a drawing room or bedroom wall as though sudden, violent x-rays of the past. Davies’s proclivity for gradual tonal and textural metamorphosis (think of Distant Voices becoming Still Lives, or A Quiet Passion imperceptibly moving from outside to strictly in) allows him to shift the film, partway through, from an examination of wartime agony to one of bedroom battle lines, a change made most clearly when Robbie introduces Sassoon to actor and musician Ivor Novello (a vampiric Jeremy Irvine). Depicted as a callow beauty with raccoon eyes, Novello (“amusing but unpleasant,” remarks Sassoon’s mother) is the film’s official entrée into London’s dandy underworld.
Protected by money and influence, the men in this milieu are marked, in Davies’s semi-comic rendition, by the kind of casually vicious repartee that allows the filmmaker to indulge in his talent for employing wit as weapon and ragged cynicism. (“Purity is like virginity; as soon as you touch it, it becomes corrupt” says Novello’s betrayed lover, Glen.) Novello’s narcissism becomes a dramatic catalyst here, a constant disappointment that clouds Sassoon’s romantic pursuits, and which seems to infect his later relationship with the consumptive Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). An air of joylessness pervades many of the scenes of gay flirtation or heavy petting, which fits neatly into Davies’ cinematic worldview, in which sexual release is as unlikely as religious salvation. The mournful tone also grants these scenes a sense of lingering trauma, of an inescapable past. When Sassoon takes up the challenge of marriage, he selects prim yet direct Hester Gatty (portrayed in blooming youth by Kate Phillips and in later years by Gemma Jones), who knows about his sexual past, and with whom he dances to Gershwin in one of the film’s few moments of unfettered enjoyment.
Another such moment, crucially, is an early scene of Sassoon tangoing cheek to cheek with Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart. Owen will prove the presiding spirit of Benediction. At once a lost companion, a boy ripped out of this world by war, and a poet whose career was all too brief, he is the film’s final, and loudest, voice. In the miraculous, devastating conclusion, we are finally privileged to hear “Disabled,” its words somehow speaking for Sassoon’s own amputated youth and the procession of soldiers’ graves that have been haunting the entire film.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
Now that we have heard it, the dam breaks: Davies floods the soundtrack with the churning, rising waves of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s swooning, mournful 1910 string orchestral piece “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” In an extended single take that uses Lowden’s broad-browed emotional openness to full advantage, Sassoon, perched on a bench at twilight, waits as the shadows descend one terrible, last time.