Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Terence Davies’ ‘Benediction’ brings to life story of war poet Siegfried Sassoon

The filmmaker’s next masterpiece has a powerful historic gay source.

In an interview with showbiz bible Variety, Davies discussed his inspiration for Benediction, the biopic of gay Catholic World War I poet and hero, Siegfried Sassoon.

Decorated for bravery on the notorious battlefield of the Western Front, Sassoon became — along with Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke — one of the leading poets of the First World War.

His poetry made the horrors of the trenches tangible, such as “The Dug-Out,” written in August 1918, in which he describes the chaos that resulted in him being accidentally wounded by a fellow British soldier and discharged from service.

Anyone who has seen the WWI films Gallipoli or 1918 will know that the Great War was a socio-political experiment in jingoistic gaslighting on a mass scale, and the narrative is often best understood through the lens of high stakes male friendship. And so it was that Sassoon wrote a protest poem against the war — “Soldier’s Declaration” in 1917 — which landed him in a military psychiatric hospital; there he met and formed a romantic friendship with Wilfred Owen, who was also gay. Owen looked up to Sassoon and he once wrote in a letter to him, “You have fixed my life – however short.”

Terence Davies’ 2016 film A Quiet Passion was about the life of another queer poet, Emily Dickinson, with whom he says he most identifies as a subject. One thinks of Dickinson’s line “This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me…” And Benediction will hopefully be Davies’ letter to the world in danger of forgetting Sassoon and his extraordinary generation.

Davies said to Variety that he is focusing on the aspects of Sassoon’s life he relates to, such as his tendency to fall in love with the wrong men; his search for redemption; his somewhat futile desire for the solace of God.

“None of us can find redemption in other people or in other things. You have to find it yourself. At the end of his life, I think he was actually quite unfulfilled. That touched me enormously,” said Davies.

Ivor Novello (David Ivor Davies) |The National Library of Wales

“All my films are about outsiders because I’m an outsider. I listened to everything because I’m the youngest of 10. I wasn’t aware of it at first, but as I got older I realized I’m not a participant in life. I observe it. And when you’re an outsider, you’re usually ignored.”

Sassoon fell in love with the silent film star Ivor Novello (a cad, according to Benediction) and Davies made a conscious choice to not let the period setting stifle his representation of early 20th-century homosexuality, or desire between men as it existed independently of any political movement.

“They’re privileged, so they can get away with it. That’s where the privilege comes in. A lot of the upper-middle and upper class were bisexual or homosexual. Siegfried Sassoon knew literally everyone in society. When he was wounded, Winston Churchill and his mother came to visit him in the hospital,” reveals Davies.

Benediction finished production in November 2020 and will be released this fall. Jack Lowden plays a Young Siegfried while Peter Capaldi plays the Older Sassoon. Jeremy Irvine is Ivor Novello and Matthew Tennyson is Wilfred Owen.

Benediction will have its World Premiere as a Special Presentation at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival on September 12.

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Merryn Johns

Merryn Johns is the Editor-in-Chief of Queer Forty. She is an award-winning journalist, as well as a broadcaster and public speaker. Originally from Sydney, Australia where she began her career in journalism in the 1990s, she is based in New York City where she became the editor-in-chief of Curve Magazine and wrote for a variety of publications including Vanity Fair, Vogue, Slate, and more. Follow on Twitter at @Merryn1

Merryn Johns has 141 posts and counting. See all posts by Merryn Johns

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