Richard Goulding

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 soirĂ©e 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

Brexit: The Uncivil War

31/05/20

Netflix

As an unabashed remainer (and a sore loser), I didn’t bother to seek this out on its theatrical release. But enough political water has passed under the bridge for it to pique my interest when I spot it still lurking on Netflix. Besides, it’s interesting to look back on this story at a time when Dominic Cummings has become arguably the most loathed man in the UK. He’s played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t look anything like the real McCoy, but who delivers a pretty good impersonation nonetheless.

Any fears I might have that the film would portray Cummings as some kind of maverick hero figure are soon dismissed. It’s clear that writer James Graham has no particular love for his subject. Indeed, Cummings is depicted as a self-serving nihilist, a man handed a difficult job, plus complete autonomy, who is determined to win at any cost, no matter how many lies and misdirections he needs to spin. The Cummings depicted here has no political convictions whatsoever, just the all-consuming need to demonstrate that he knows how to bend the voting masses to his will.

The film does a pretty good job of nailing the sequence of events that led to the ‘Leave’ victory and uses a combination of lookalike actors – Richard Goulding is a pretty convincing Boris Johnson and Paul Ryan spot on as Nigel Farage – with occasional glimpses of some of the real players thrown in for good measure. It’s left to Rory Kinnear as Craig Oliver, leader of the ‘Remain’ movement, to portray one of the few sympathetic (if inept) characters in this story. His bewilderment as he sees the possibility of winning the campaign rapidly slipping away from him is palpable and there’s a lovely scene where he and Cummings have a pint together and realise just how much of a game-changer the referendum has been – and how little the two men have in common.

It’s to the film’s credit that it never really takes sides. The Remain campaign is shown to be out of touch, unable or unwilling to change its traditional approach to suit the social-media-dominated times. Leave voters aren’t demonised either – they demonstrate legitimate concerns about the way they’ve been increasingly sidelined over the years.

If nothing else, this is eloquent proof that Cummings, a man who cares not a jot about political values might have no hesitation in flouting a set of rules he helped to create – and why Johnson and his crew might be so desperate to hang onto him, no matter what the cost to their credibility.

While I can’t say I enjoy this film – it feels suspiciously like having my nose rubbed in something rather nasty – it’s a thoroughly decent investigation of recent political history. And those seeking answers will find them here.

4 stars

Philip Caveney