Reviews by Joyce Glasser blessing (May 20, 2022) Certificate 12A, 137 min
The Kent-born poet and novelist Siegfried Sassoon is buried with other ‘Poets of the Great War’ in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner, under a stone that reads ‘My subject is War and the pity of War. Poetry is in pity.” A pity for Sassoon is that even at his funeral, though distinguished and decorated, he missed out on glory. Wilfred Owen, a 25-year-old soldier and poet whose craft shaped and inspired Sassoon, wrote that these two famous lines and then died in battle; an ending young Sassoon, nicknamed Mad Jack for his suicidal exploits in battle, did not fear.
In this impressively ambitious, if unfocused and achingly sad film, 76-year-old Terence Davies seems to identify with Sassoon’s lifelong search for peace as the poet confronts his art, his homosexuality and his faith (Davies was Catholic; Sassoon converted to Catholicism).
Despite Sassoon’s (Jack Lowden, excellent) daring exploits that earned him the Military Cross in 1917, his poetry was notable for its ‘unpatriotic’ nature, conveying the brutal truth of war to the flag-waving public. While recovering from stomach fever, influenced in part by pacifists like Bertrand Russell; partly through the death of his brother Hamo at Gallipoli and partly through the slaughter of his colleagues in the trenches, Sassoon refused to return to the front.
He sent a powerful if treacherous letter Ended with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration (recited from the off in the film) to his commanding officer. For Sassoon, a court-martial for treason (with a death sentence) was a platform to publicize his criticism of the sacrifice of young men in a poorly managed war. His mentor, Oscar Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale), used his connections to have Sassoon sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh for treatment of neurasthenia (“shock shock”), a surrender Sassoon was reluctant to accept accepted.
At Craiglockhart Hospital, Sassoon engages in a witty and meaningful dialogue with the likeable homosexual Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels, excellent). He becomes editor of the hospital magazine Hydra, where his poetry is published, and becomes mentor (and possible lover) of fellow patient Wilfred Owen. Given the extent of Sassoon’s influence on Owen’s poetry, it is surprising that her literary discussions feature only a few lines in the film.
blessing is – unsurprisingly given the title – a somber, thoughtful and tranquil tale, but Davies, who wrote the screenplay, displays exceptional wit in the dialogues, particularly in the film’s lively middle section, which focuses on Sassoon’s endless invitations and affairs. Sassoon’s uniform is now a tuxedo, and the intellectual talk and ideological campaigning disappear.
One of the bright young things of the Roaring Twenties, scion of a once fabulously wealthy Jewish dynasty and a published poet, Sassoon was at the top of the guest list of Edith Sitwell (Lia Williams) and socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell (Suzanne Bertish). . His fling with bitchy, polyamorous Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) – Sassoon’s artist mother Theresa (Geraldine James) warns her son that Novello has “cruel eyes” – and decadent socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch and Aton Lessor), among many others , dominate the middle section.
While Novello’s ego and sadistic personality receive much attention, Tennant, brother of Edward, a minor war poet who was killed at the age of 20, and David, whose Soho nightclub, The Gargoyle, bought Matisse’s masterpiece, acquired The Red StudioShe’s such a dull queen, she seems caricatured. Robbie Ross’ character is so underdeveloped that it’s difficult to relate him to the heroic character in Rupert Everett’s Oscar Wilde biopic. The happy prince. When Ross dies prematurely in 1918, neither we nor Sassoon seem to notice.
What these relationships do, however, is reveal a submissive, insecure side of the strong-willed war hero, though this chameleon isn’t developed in the narrative.
The succession of scenes of dinner parties, bed-changing, and love quarrels may be intentionally boring, suggesting a form of self-punishment that Sassoon endures for being a survivor. But when Sassoon suffers from PTSD, Davies doesn’t develop that idea. The middle section, so full of frivolity and self-indulgence that he even becomes indulgent, ends in 1933 with Sassoon’s desperate marriage to Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), attended by old gay friends and acquaintances, including DH Lawrence. As we see in the film (and read in EM Forster’s novel Moritz), gay men married to camouflage themselves, but Sassoon also wanted a child.
In the next segment, Sassoon is bizarrely played by Peter Capaldi (who doesn’t look like Lowden) as a bitter, nasty old man who’s still married to an ailing Gatty (Gemma Jones), though their marriage actually officially ended in 1945. He has his son George (Richard Goulding) virtually estranged; converts to Catholicism and feels passed over for honors. There seems to be a break between past and present.
Then we are treated to a tour de force finale in which the old Sassoon morphs into his younger self (played by Lowden) in military uniform, sitting on a bench in 1967 and reciting Wilfred Owen’s poem through a stream of tears Handicapped. The camera switches from Lowden to an amputee; the voice of the poem Handicapped. It’s powerful stuff.
blessing lacks the integration of the poet’s work and life that illuminated Davie’s brilliant biopic of Emily Dickenson, A private passion. In this film, Sassoon’s poems are occasionally recited, usually in the voice-over but barely mentioned in the dialogue. Is Ivor Novello’s insult that Sassoon’s poetry hasn’t evolved a valid point? Even Sassoon’s popular novels, known as The Sherston Trilogy are fictional autobiographies about his wartime experiences. He can’t shake it and make progress.
Davies fails to examine, let alone dramatize, why Sassoon was a bitter old man. Was it a professional disappointment? Did he feel left out for the sake of fame? Sassoon alludes to TS Eliot’s Nobel Prize, but Davies fails to mention the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, to which Sassoon must have been invited. There Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem with lyrics by Wilfred Owen was played in front of the Queen.
In a scene at Craiglockhart Hospital, Davies plants the notion that Sassoon should spend his life looking for something, but he fails to dramatize that quest. Was it his sexual identity, a lost love, or was it professional fulfillment? Or maybe it’s something more spiritual, although there’s no sense in the film that his religious conversion was the answer.
Terence Davies powerful, witty and ambitious if unfocused biopic about Siegfried Sassoon.
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