Terence Davies: Redemption in Benediction

May 20, 2022
The septuagenarian director returns with this biopic of English poet Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi.

When FilmInk speaks with Terence Davies, he’s Zooming from his neighbour’s house, who is kindly lending a hand. “I’m hopeless with anything computer-like. I’m just hopeless!” Davies laughs.

A former shipping clerk and bookkeeper, the 76-year-old grew up long before the digital age, landing on the film scene with 1983’s The Terence Davies Trilogy. Since then, he’s continued crafting highly personal works, from Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) to his documentary Of Time and the City (2008), set in his hometown of Liverpool.

More recently, he’s been on a literary trip – including adaptions of Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea (2011), with Rachel Weisz, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song (2015).

Now he’s back with Benediction, a dazzling look at the life of First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon (played by Jack Lowden and, as an older man, Peter Capaldi). Davies’ second poetry biopic in a row, following 2016’s Emily Dickinson tale A Quiet Passion, it’s one of his most assured works in his splendid career.

Before you began this, were you a big fan of the poems of Siegfried Sassoon?

I hadn’t really read him, as I’d read Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. But when I was asked to do this, I started reading much more. And what emerged from that is that he seems constantly to be searching for something. For me, it was probably redemption, because he fell in love with all the wrong men, and then got married, like a lot of gay men did in the ’20s and ’30s. And that didn’t work out either. He was not a good husband really, quite cruel to his wife. So that’s what emerged… I could make something of it, but I didn’t know the poetry until I started reading it six years ago. It’s taken six years for the film to come to the screen.

How did the project come together?

Ben Roberts at the BFI [British Film Institute] suggested it. And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.’ But I had no idea what kind of life Sassoon had. And it did take a long time to actually get the script feeling like a film…

Jack Lowden as Edward Sassoon

How did you find your way into him as a character?

I could obviously respond to the fact that the First World War made him a great poet. Then he was gay, I could respond to that. He then got married, which I can’t respond to because I’m not married. And then he became a Catholic, which kind of appalled me because I was brought up a Catholic, and I can’t understand why he would go into such a faith that deals in guilt all the time. But it was one of those things where he obviously thought that he would get some kind of redemption. Unfortunately, none of us can find redemption except in ourselves.

Would you say you’re a very different person to Sassoon?

Not really, no. I think I have the same terrors. Certainly, in terms of thinking that one could have been redeemed, and as I say, that’s the part of it, which was autobiographical. I longed for some miracle to happen, and that life wouldn’t be as hard as I fear it is for a lot of people. I did feel very emotionally close to him, just as I felt emotionally close to Emily Dickinson for different reasons. But there’s always part of you in there and you can’t get away from that.

What made you decide to flip between his youth and his older years?

Well, that’s what came naturally. And because I don’t write linear narrative, it just seemed right, at some point, to have what he was left with at the end. Because I did think he carried it with him for the rest of his life. And then who wouldn’t? Those dreadful battles of the First World War and huge casualty lists and seeing people be blown to pieces… of course, you’re going to carry that with the rest of your life. And I think that is something that he did do. But that’s only my interpretation of what he was like. But I did feel it was important to show what it was like at the end of his life, still trying to find some kind of peace, if you like, and not finding it.

How did you decide on Jack Lowden to play the young Sassoon?

A lot of people did self-tapes, which I think is a good thing. But I met him. We had a few drinks one night with Lucy [Rands], who did the casting. Just talking to him, I sort of knew that he was right. And then he very kindly did a self-tape and that really confirmed it.

So you hadn’t seen him in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

No, I’ve not seen it. I don’t go to the cinema very much now. Old and miserable… that’s what I am!

Peter Capaldi is a fine choice as the older Sassoon. How was it watching him work?

Well, you don’t really have to do very much when an actor finds the character, and he’s got such a beautiful face. You really could look at it forever. I always say to the actors ‘don’t act, just be’. If you ‘be’ it’s more truthful.

You portray Sassoon’s lover Ivor Novello in a very unflattering light. Why?

But he was a very unpleasant man! Even his official biography tries to smooth away these affairs that he had. Mainly peccadillos really… but where Siegfried was concerned, he destroyed his own diaries for those three years he was with Ivor Novello. And Ivor Novello was sexually manipulative and venal. He just was. A casting director I know, her father had managed theatres, and had managed one of the shows that he was in, and said he was horrible. Unfortunately, like all villains, they tend to be more interesting than anybody else. If you go back to the Middle Age Miracle Plays, the man who played God got less than the man who played the devil. So, it’s probably a long tradition!

Jeremy Irvine (left) as entertainer Ivor Novello

You also show Sassoon’s relationship with Wilfred Owen. How do you feel about their time together?

They did meet at Craiglockhart in Scotland, and I think they did fall in love with one another. But they didn’t have sex. I just think it was purely love. And it just had to be… because it was something that could’ve perhaps changed his life. But that’s, I think, the person he really loved, and I think Wilfred Owen loved him and perhaps that was part of him which he thought, ‘I must keep it pure’, because also, Wilfred Owen had to go back to the front. And he was killed in the last week of the war. But I think that poignant relationship had to be in the film.

Matthew Tennyson as poet Wilfred Owen

The last time we met, you had Sunset Song and A Quiet Passion out within a year of each other, and you joked that you were ‘in danger of becoming prolific’!

That run is over! Because the next film is proving difficult, as always, to get money for. But the gaps between films are starting again. It’s becoming a bit of a burden.

What is the film you hope to get made?

It’s a book by Stefan Zweig, who wrote Letter from An Unknown Woman, and Beware of Pity. It’s called The Post Office Girl. And he never finished it. He just tinkered with it before he and his wife killed themselves in Rio de Janeiro. It’s a wonderful book, I think, with the most ambiguous ending, which I said, ‘We’ve got to keep.’ But like a lot of Zweig, it’s about pain and torment and hope – hope relinquished or taken away.

Is it an expensive film?

All independent films are expensive. You don’t make them for two and sixpence! No, it’s always difficult. I’m not in the mainstream, and therefore that makes it difficult. And now a lot of people have to give money for a film to be made. You look at all the logos at the beginning of the film, and that’s simply because you need all that money!

Benediction opens in cinemas on June 9, 2022

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