My first assignment as a student filmmaker in university was to go out onto the streets, observe the people around me, choose one of them and think of their story to the point of me seeing them. This is almost how I see Benediction in a way because it has character study written all over it. This is exactly what you’ll be getting from Benediction with the slow burn method of revealing a character, though when it comes to the filmmaking, it can be a bit of a wild card that doesn’t always work as it should.
The strongest element I can say about this film is how the theme of struggle runs through the narrative like water, and this is accredited to the character of Sigmund Sassoon (Jack Lowden). You experience the two main struggles of the character, his anti-war stance and his closeted sexuality. Through the runtime of the film, he begins to develop a sort of survivors’ guilt and unhappiness with failed gay relationship after another, you begin to feel the agony in the character, especially during his later life as an older man (Peter Capaldi) where he feels angry with the modern world. There’s something oddly personal in this film and I think director Terrence Davies is responsible for this because the performance of Lowden effectively creates this sad and sombre feeling.
I have to mention the camera work and editing in Benediction because they are an example of two different filmmaking elements that have totally different natures to one another. The camerawork I felt was pretty simple, nothing too much to brag about, but it does work. The editing of the other hand is very experimental. You have scenes where footage is projected onto another surface in the frame with the actor in front of it, there are examples of face merging shots in which the character’s face goes from young to old, it is pretty wild for a film that has a very little soundtrack.
Benediction is very much a talking film, only on a few occasions with the film break up the dialogue to make way for something more visual. It’s all very much “Queens English”, even down to the droll banter. Mind you, the heat coming off the cold verbal jousting are easily the most gripping pieces of dialogue in a dialogue-heavy film. Sassoon and lover Ivor (Jeremy Irvine) are the front foot of this back and forth which is both investing and devastating as you feel sympathetic for Sassoon as he is effectively being treated disrespectfully by Ivor, of course when his next relationship fails, you desperately want something to go right for this character.
There is a weight that comes with a film that is heavy with its dialogue which is they can sometimes become a slow slog to watch, which unfortunately Benediction does fall into. It is a challenge to identify story progression because several scenes do feel very repetitive because of the intercutting between the same two camera angles over and over again.
An odd inclusion in this film is the use of stock WWI footage that plays over the poetry of Sassoon. The film has several of these moments and I’m certain it takes us a huge chunk of Benediction. This was either going to turn out really good or really bad and unfortunately, it’s the latter. The exceptions to this are the aforementioned projection onto a surface with a character in front of it, when you just have the stock footage, it feels more like a film you would see in a museum rather than in a cinema. The angle the film goes for with this technique is the horrors of WWI, which aligns with Sassoon’s poetry. The problem is this it’s an incredibly limited angle, Benediction always uses disturbing WWI images, but it could literally use footage of soldiers being happy and still get the same effect, which I believe would be even better to use. It would certainly get the thought of “those poor boys” into the heads of the audiences easier.
Those who saw the name Peter Capaldi and thought to see this film will be dissatisfied by the fact he’s not exactly in it for a long time. I don’t even think the film could make up its mind about when to use him, for instance, there’s a short scene in which he is in a Catholic church (to which the word ‘benediction’ originates), which we assume in the beginnings of his crisis of faith, but they never fully explore this part of the character, let alone with Capaldi as an older Sassoon. More time is focused on the character’s closeted sexuality than his faith which would have made a more perfectly rounded theme of struggle.
Overall, I’d say Benediction was a small surprise for a film that didn’t seem to be heavily marketed. My biggest gripe is that the heavy dialogue will make this film tough to watch for a casual viewing, but if you want to know the life of a man who was consistently kicked down all because of a war out of his control, you may end up with a newfound respect for the poet, like I have.
Final Result: 5/10 – Average
Have you seen Benediction? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
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