Jeremy Irivine

Benediction

21/05/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Once thought of as the foremost chronicler of British working-class life, writer/director Terence Davies turns his attention to the more privileged world of the poet and novelist, Seigfried Sassoon, in a bleak but affecting account of his life. When we first meet Sassoon (Jack Lowden) he’s already a decorated war hero, who has publicly announced his hatred for the political machinations of the conflict and his refusal to have anything more to do with it.

He’s duly packed off to Craiglockheart, Scotland, to undergo ‘therapy’ and is issued with an armband which identifies him as suffering from mental health issues, rather than as a conscientious objector. The latter, of course, generally tended to end up in front of a firing squad.

At Craiglockheart, Sassoon finds himself under the sympathetic care of Dr Rivers (Ben Daniels), who – like Sassoon – is secretly homosexual; it’s also here that he meets young poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennysson), to whom he becomes a friend and a mentor – whilst wistfully observing that Owen is the greater talent. Owen, of course, is soon declared to be ‘cured’ and despatched back to the trenches, where he is destined to die at just twenty-five years old.

As the years roll by and the jazz age seems to offer the promise of a more permissive society, Sassoon moves through a series of relationships with unsuitable men. These include Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), depicted here as a thoroughly odious piece of work – and Stephen Tennent (Calam Lynch), who despises the very concept of fidelity. Davies captures the spirit of the age with great skill and the marvellously bitchy banter deployed by Sassoon’s acquaintances is endlessly entertaining. There’s also an uncomfortable scene where Sassoon is invited to recite a poem at a soirée and manages to destroy the evening with the literary equivalent of an articulated lorry smashing through a plate glass window.

Again the years roll by and another war ensues. In an ill-advised attempt to achieve outward respectability, Sassoon decides to marry Hester Gatty (Kate Philips), and it’s clear from the outset that their marriage is not going to end well. In later scenes, the poet has transformed into a bitter, guilt-wracked recluse – this version played by Peter Capaldi – struggling to connect with his son, George (Richard Goulding), and haunted by the fact that he has never found the acclaim he feels is his due. Capaldi looks nothing like Lowden, but perhaps that’s the point. Isolated in a world he no longer identifies with – a straight world of pop music and disposable trivia – Sassoon really does seem like an entirely different person.

Austere and elegiac, Benediction won’t be for everyone, but for poetry lovers there are readings of some of Sassoon’s finest works, often recited over harrowing black and white sequences from the First World War – the spectre that shaped his talent and from which he never really escaped. It’s perhaps ironic that the film’s moving climax is handed over to Wilfred Owen, whose shattering poem, Disabled, provides the soundtrack for Sassoon’s greatest moment of self-realisation.

Benediction is a fascinating piece – an evocation of a period that seemed to offer the possibility of sexual freedom, but somehow never truly delivered on that promise – and the life story of a man haunted by his own ghosts.

Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

23/07/18

The reviews have been astonishing: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, we’re told, a glorious piece of feelgood fun; moreover, it has the emotional heft to make us cry. We’re surprised: we’re ABBA fans (because the music is undeniably good, right?) but we both found the first film a sort of okay-watchable-quite-good-nothing-special kind of thing. So what makes it so much better this time?

Sadly, the answer is… nothing. Nothing makes it better, because it isn’t better: it’s worse. It’s weirdly patchy: some genuinely awful sequences interspersed with lovely moments. All together, it’s a mess. Most of it (the prequel section) tells a back story we already know, fleshed out without revealing anything. There are no surprises here. The sequel section fares better, with the multi-talented Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) bringing a much-needed sincerity to proceedings, and wringing every ounce of emotion from the songs (One of Us, which she sings with her estranged husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is the highlight of the film for me).

The prequel takes us back to 1979, when Donna (Lily James), freshly graduated from Oxford, unsure of what she wants from life, decides to seek adventure and takes herself off travelling. In Paris, she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner); charmed by his geeky naïvety, she spends the night with him before heading off alone to Greece. En route to the unnamed island idyll that claims her, she meets Stellan Skarsgård’s younger incarnation (Josh Dylan), but he’s off to take part in a boat race, and – while he’s gone – she falls for Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the Pierce Brosnan-a-like, who is absolutely perfect – except for the fiancée he forgets to tell her about. James is a charismatic performer, and her vocal skills are more than up to the challenge (which is more than can be said for poor Hugh Skinner, who has definitely been cast because he resembles Colin Firth, and not because he has any discernible musical ability). Her character is flighty and foolish, making literally no use of that Oxford degree, but she’s engaging and entertaining, and she makes us care about her.

Not much happens in the sequel, which is a shame, because it has all the best songs and all the best actors. I mean, Sophie gets pregnant and feels close to her dead mother, and there’s a party that’s threatened by a storm, but that’s about it. True, Cher is a camp delight, appearing as Sophie’s errant grandmother and stealing the show, and Dancing Queen proves the perfect accompaniment to a lively, animated crowd scene. But honestly, that’s all there is.

There are huge missteps too. I hate the graduation scene where Donna and her friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) sing I Kissed the Teacher to a badly accented Celia Imrie (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish, but I can’t be sure). They’ve changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ in a bid to make the lyrics somehow more palatable, but I can’t see what difference it makes – it’s a good song, but the sentiment is undeniably creepy when filtered through a 2018 lens. It makes me most uncomfortable.

Ach, I don’t know. It’s just a load of mawkish nonsense, unpalatably sentimental and as silly as can be. Thank you for the music, ABBA – but can we stop filming this fluff?

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield