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Why you should seeā€¦ Benediction

#DCAcinema

6 June 2022

We're thrilled to be screening Terence Davies' Benediction this week – here's Dr Brian Hoyle from the University of Dundee with more on this film and its remarkable director…

Any new film by Terence Davies is an event. He is easily one of the finest and most distinctive filmmakers working today, but his eccentric choice of material and total refusal to compromise his vision has meant that he is hardly prolific. His last film, the suitably idiosyncratic Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, was released five years ago.  

“films… structured the way that memories work, fragmented and non-linear”

Davies’ career to date can be divided into two distinct periods. Between the mid-70s and 90s he produced a trilogy of short films, and two features – Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes – that are amongst the finest achievements in all British cinema. These early works were unapologetically autobiographical and chronicled his struggles with domestic abuse and a repressive Catholic upbringing that made him ashamed of his sexuality. What made these works transcend their potentially miserable material was Davies’s utterly unique style. His films were structured the way that memories work, fragmented and non-linear; his graceful tracking shots flowed together like a river; and he used music with a dark irony that’s still to be matched.  

From the 1995’s Neon Bible onwards, British filmmaker Terrence Davies’ subject matter has become less autobiographical and more overtly literary.  Adaptations of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song lead up to two films about poets, A Quiet Passion, and now Benediction, a biopic about Siegfried Sassoon.  

Benediction begins in 1914 with the poet going off to war, but the narrative moves back and forth between the adventures of young Sassoon (played brilliantly by Jack Lowdon) as he protests the war, befriends Wilfred Owen, and engages in sexual relationships with Bright Young Things like Ivor Novello and Stephen Tennant, and the late 1950s when an older Sassoon (a suitably sour Peter Capaldi) converts to Catholicism and looks back on his life.  

On paper, making a second consecutive film about a poet might sound like treading water, but this is resolutely not the case. Benediction builds on the finest aspects of A Quiet Passion, but on closer inspection it is far more personal. Sassoon’s story, one of trauma, repressed homosexuality, Catholicism, and poetry, could be Davies’s own. And the film’s fragmented narrative and time jumps hark back to the audacity and originality of his earlier autobiographical films. In short, do not expect a straight-forward biopic, but do expect to be challenged, entertained, and moved by a great filmmaker’s best work in two decades.  

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