TIFF Review: 'Benediction' Captures the Complexities of a Lifetime Directed by Terence Davies

Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels, Kate Phillips, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Geraldine James
TIFF Review: 'Benediction' Captures the Complexities of a Lifetime Directed by Terence Davies
7
There are movies that take a lifetime. Terence Davies has a talent for creating such movies, even if they don't begin right at a protagonist's birth; when you leave them, you feel as though you have lived a full life. Benediction is no different, pulling viewing into the life of English poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon (played as a younger man by Jack Lowden, and as an older man by Peter Capaldi) so holistically you feel as though you're one of his best friends. With immersive visual poetry, Benediction redefines what a good biopic can be.

Sassoon, though a decorated soldier, was a conscientious objector of WWI, and writer-director Davies makes Sassoon's case by showing audiences the violence young men suffered in one of the bloodiest wars, as Lowdon's voice reads out Sassoon's poems. This visual lyricism, featuring archival footage, punctuates Sassoon's journey from the war well into his old age: we see Sassoon as he lives as a gay man during a time in England when this was outlawed, meeting Churchill and the Queen for his poetic successes, and as he deals with his PTSD.  Davies excels at immersive storytelling because he takes his time, which is a virtue in a biopic — a life doesn't follow the course that fiction takes. Benediction meanders through Sassoon's life and its various ups and downs, such as his blissful but tragically brief relationship with Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) and his destructively passionate romance with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine). 

Benediction's sharp and often hilarious dialogue, breathtaking score and beguiling visuals are brought to life by stellar performances from Lowdon and Capaldi, and by virtually every cast member. Lowdon's Sassoon is lived in, charming, tragic and beautiful. And Capaldi as the older Sassoon is frightening and terrified simultaneously, confounded by time and by the lack of it. Davies shows the older Sassoon as one caught in fond remembrances of a joyous youth.  

This movie is not just a war movie or a biopic, it's a visual feast — a celebration of Sassoon's life, and an appreciative meditation on ageing and time. 

The 2021 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 9 to 18. Get info about in-person and online screenings at the festival website. (EMU Films)