Terence Davies’ “Benediction” highlights a wartime poet

Jeremy Irvine and Jack Lowden in “Benediction.”
Roadside Attractions/Laurence Cendrowicz

“It doesn’t get better,” is the argument behind out gay British director Terence Davies’ “Benediction.” His film approaches the biopic as a veiled autobiography. Narratives about queer people set in the past can fall into several traps: indulging a presentism that suggests that our serious problems are behind us, or going to the other extreme and fetishizing oppression to a degree that’s only palatable because it’s distant.

“Benediction” operates on an unconventional logic of time. Siegfried Sassoon’s younger self is played by Jack Lowden, while Peter Capaldi depicts him in his 60s. The key scene of “Benediction” edits Sassoon’s dances with all his lovers, male and female, through the gaze of a mirror. “The Shining” may be an odd reference point, but just as Jack Torrance is trapped in an eternal past of violence and male dominance, Sassoon never escapes the trauma of World War I. The editing of “Benediction” ties his life into a present damned by the lack of real progress.

Davies treated his own youth as grist for his first two features “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes,” and approached his experience growing up in Liverpool in “Of Time and the City.” But the rest of his filmography is full of literary adaptations set in the past — he’s never made a feature depicting present-day life, saying he doesn’t understand the modern world well enough to do so — and stories about writers. “Benediction” begins in 1914, with Sassoon sent to serve in World War I. His experiences led him to become a passionate opponent of the war, something which landed him in a psychiatric hospital.

Speaking in long sessions with his gay therapist, Mr. Rivers (Ben Daniels), he starts to engage with his sexuality. But his love for Wilfrid Owen (Matthew Tennyson) is quickly dashed; over the image of Owen entering a truck leading him to military service, Sassoon’s voice tells us that Owen was killed in battle a week before the war’s end. Sassoon falls in with a group of queer men who imitate Oscar Wilde’s cutting wit without his humanity or intelligence, including actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch.) In the incarnation played by Capaldi, he tries to find a refuge from his pain by marrying Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips) and embracing Catholicism. Spoiler alert: it does not work.

The condition of being frozen by the difficulty of engaging with modern life is shared by a generation of American directors younger than Davies: Take the recent efforts of David Fincher, Richard Linklater and Paul Thomas Anderson. But Davies’ work has always been deeply conservative in temperament, if not political ideology. Davies’ self-hatred about gayness has frequently manifested in interviews, where he says that his sexual orientation ruined his life and left him a lonely, celibate old man. Indeed, the gloom of “Benediction” comes full circle to his early shorts about the miserable life of his alter ego, Robert Tucker.

As conservative as Davies’ films are, they don’t wallow in nostalgia. Their problem with the present is that it doesn’t offer genuine freedom or allow one to escape the traumas of childhood and youth, not that it’s inferior to an imagined past. He’s celebrated Hollywood musicals — the use of pop music and film references in “Distant Voices, Still Lives” demonstrates how they can enrich difficult life experiences — but he tuned out from pop culture as early as the ‘60s, mocking the Beatles in “Of Time and the City.” For Davies, the past was never a sanctuary, but a dangerous place he never fully escaped.

“Benediction” gestures away from naturalism, with Sassoon reading his poetry and correspondence over archival images (some quite gruesome) of World War I. Davies’ direction uses special effects to suggest time’s unity, but never in a seamless manner. A cut where rear-projected war footage behind Sassoon is suddenly replaced by the garden he’s really standing in is jarring. Davies avoids psychology, even in Sassoon’s long dialogues with his therapist. The character’s pain is stated through images more than words.

The film’s weakest segment is its middle third, depicting Sassoon’s immersion into the world of 1920s “Bright Young Things.” Its dialogue is arch and brittle, with characters competing to cut each other down. These scenes play out like a much earlier version of “The Boys in the Band,” although they draw from the novels of Evelyn Waugh. Not surprisingly, “Benediction” blames queer men for embracing our own toxic attitudes to a point where true love and community are impossible for Sassoon. His male lovers are so nasty that one wonders why he stuck around so long. His retreat into the closet seems motivated by the failure of the period’s gay social scene more than internalized homophobia.

“Benediction” plays like a film out of time. Queer audiences are turning away from the arthouse and towards streaming, looking for upbeat teen dramas and rom-coms. Davies, who’s now 76, continues to pursue his own path. Superficially, “Benediction” resembles the British period pieces which have filled “Masterpiece Theater” and earned Oscar nominations. In reality, it’s an expression of queer time that’s actually closer to the avant-sci-fi of Alain Resnais’ “Je t’aime, Je t’aime.” Sassoon never progresses beyond the final shot, in which his young incarnation weeps with an agonized expression, but “Benediction” makes something profoundly moving from his loop of inescapable pain.

“Benediction” | Directed by Terence Davies | Roadside Attractions | Opens June 3rd