The film deals first and inevitably with the horrors of the First World War, for which Davies uses a lot of moving archive footage of the war with Lowden as Siegfried reading his poems voice over. While effective there is however rather too much of it. It’s well worn territory and we get the point immediately.
Siegfried is awarded the Military Cross for his bravery in combat but is so horrified by the carnage he has witnessed that he writes a letter of protest to his superiors saying he will fight no more. This results in his being sent to Craiglockhart war hospital near Edinburgh with “shell shock”, an experience also dealt with in the film and novel Regeneration. Here he meets budding fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson) and begins to explore his homosexuality with the support of psychiatrist Dr Rivers, a delightfully warm and sympathetic performance from Ben Daniels.
As well as Lowden, Davies has assembled a remarkably strong cast for the film. Simon Russell Beale revels in his role as Robbie Ross, mentoring the young gay men of post war London society. Ross, who was Oscar Wilde’s loyal friend, actually died in 1918 but poetic licence gives him a few more years here.
Davies positively delights in these scenes of the bright young gay things of London society in the twenties. They are beautifully and wittily played. Jeremy Irvine, once the young First World war hero of War Horse, is startlingly different as Ivor Novello, all camp bitchery and eyeliner and Tom Blyth is rather touching as theatre director Glen Byam Shaw, who falls in love with Siegfried. There are also some witty cameos of famous literary figures of the time such as Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams) and an effectively flamboyant performance from Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant, the young socialite, who appears here to be the love of Siegfried’s life and whose ultimate rejection of the poet the reason why his marriage is doomed to failure.
It is in this aspect however that the film lacks conviction. Like many gay men of their generation, Siegfried and indeed Shaw both marry in an attempt to be “normal”. Siegfried marries bright young thing Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), to whom he is totally frank about his homosexuality and they have a son George, played as an adult by Richard Goulding. There are a few flash forwards early in the film of George with older Siegfried when the latter is converting to Catholicism, where the poet is played by Peter Capaldi as a grumpy old man, who physically and in personality bears no resemblance to his younger self. Nor does Gemma Jones, as the older Hester, trying in the latter scenes of the film to valiantly to cope with him.
It appears to be fact from Sassoon’s diaries that his marriage was unhappy but we see nothing of how that unhappiness develops. Also, Sassoon was in his late forties when he married. Lowden still looks like a young man and there is little indication in the only two post marriage scenes we see with baby George that anything is wrong between the couple. At over two hours the film is rather long but perhaps what was needed was more scenes from the marriage and a stronger indication of how wounded Siegfried was by his affairs and by Stephen in particular. A brief cameo by Anton Lesser as the older Stephen doesn’t really cut the mustard.
We do however get what is effectively a visual summary of a life that was both charmed and tragic in the film’s very effective long final shot when old Siegfried morphs into his younger self, both contemplating his life.
BENEDICTION will be released on 20th May in UK and Irish cinemas. For more information, head to https://benedictionfilm.co.uk/