Not only did the years 1914 to 1918 bear witness to the brutality of the First World War but they also birthed a collective of poets that marked a shift in English cultural history. Among them was Siegfried Sassoon, returning from battle gallantly decorated with a Military Cross yet cynical and disenchanted with the state of humanity, his troubled life lies at the epicentre of Terence Davies’ latest biopic Benediction.
His equivocal yet elegant poetic works regaling tales from the trenches landed him among the socialites and aristocrats of the Bright Young Things rising through the ranks of society in 1920s jazz-age London. While the narrative is an aching portrait of a man continually seeking redemption and battling with the guilt of returning from war when so many did not, it also sheds a light on the inner workings of Sassoon’s psyche as he navigates sexuality and heartbreak.
Jack Lowden takes on the lead role as Sassoon alongside Calam Lynch as Steven Tennant, the British socialite born into nobility whose irreverent nature earned him a reputation of being the brightest of the Bright Young Things. Jeremy Irvine portrays famed dramatist Ivor Novello whose popularity soared in the first half of the 20th century after his wartime hits and Tom Blyth takes on actor and theatre director Glen Byam Shaw. The frivolity of characters such as Tennant and Novello act as a welcome distraction and a stark contrast to the eery voiceovers of Sassoon’s poems read by Lowden interspersed between archival footage from the First World War as Davies successfully cements a dichotomy of the then and now.
Neither Lowden nor Lynch are strangers to a period drama having starred in the likes of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Netflix’s Bridgerton respectively, but in the conversation below they discuss how Sassoon’s story stands alone.
Ella Joyce: Did you have any knowledge of Siegfried Sassoon’s work or any of the other great war poets before taking on this project?
Jack Lowden: At school in Scotland, during English we did a war poet section where we just sat in a classroom and read the poetry. I remember his name being slightly bizarre and I remember his poetry being very, very stark and unpoetry-like. That’s all I sort of remembered from him, Calam probably did a lot more about him than I did.
Calam Lynch: No I didn’t, it was similar. We did bits in school but I don’t think we really focused on him, I got really into Edward Thomas who was a war poet but he was more Second World War and he was Welsh. I remembered the name as well, I remember it sounding sort of German which was strange. But like a lot of things you learn at school, it’s nice to revisit them as an adult, to rediscover them and actually do it on your own terms rather than being forced to.
“The biggest message of this film for me is wasted opportunity and wasted youth.”
EJ: When taking on a project that is so entrenched in a well-known period of time and playing characters that were once real people, what is the preparation and research process like for you as actors?
CL: I think Jack has done a lot before, because I’m quite familiar with Jack’s work, actually. [Jack laughs] But I loved it because there was this massive eight hundred page biography on Steven Tennant I could read and it felt like I could do something practical to prepare, which was really nice. What do you think Jack Lowden?
JL: It’s my favourite thing about getting to play any real person, it’s a great excuse to delve into stuff you wouldn’t otherwise. Sassoon in particular, I read his war diaries as an infantry soldier in the trenches and I prefer them to his poetry, they’re amazing. They’re so honest, sarcastic and vain – he was such a vain man. He knew very quickly that he was nowhere near as good as other poets like Wilfred Owen, he just knew and he almost writes exactly that in his diary at one point – I found those really wonderful. They’re amongst some of the best records of trench warfare. Albeit from an officer standpoint because they would go and mince about for a while in the trenches, then they would leave to go to some town in Northern France that was still standing, drink buckets of champagne then go home for a bit like it was a holiday, sit around with his mum then come back to the trenches. So, it’s sort of a true representation but of a very niche Virgin Atlantic upper-class experience of trench warfare. [laughs]
CL: Which you’re familiar with, Jack. [laughs]
JL: I’ve done it once or twice, you’ll get there.
Still, ‘Benediction’ by Terence Davies, 2022
“The film is not about being gay in the 1920s, he just happened to be gay. It’s more about him being hurt in love, the love affairs that he had… and walking into fiery rooms when he knows he’s going to get burned.”
EJ: What drew you to Terence Davies’ script? And what was it like working with him as a director?
CL: I think the only film of his I’d seen before I got the audition through was The House of Mirth because I really love Edith Wharton. I read that book and saw someone had done an adaptation for screen and I loved it. Then my dad, who is an actor as well, weirdly had met Terence for a job about twenty years before. He was like, “You’ve got to watch the Liverpool Trilogy.” So I watched Of Time and The City before my first meeting, which is obviously a super different piece. He’s just a true artist because he has such a distinct style, the fact he’s not that prolific drew me to him as well because clearly he really takes his time deciding what to do next. I also thought the script was great and the character, I responded to it immediately. I haven’t often got to play parts like Steven Tennant. Jack was a big draw for me as well and I’m only half-joking because knowing that most of my stuff would be with him, I just knew it would be a fun experience as I really admired his work.
EJ: I found it interesting how we actually never see any fictional re-enactment of wartime battle as everything is interspersed with genuine archival footage from the First World War. How do you feel that changes the way we watch the film?
JL: I think we’ve seen quite a lot of fictional First World War on screen, a lot. We’re sort of spoilt with the massive budget films like 1917 and Benediction had about a thirtieth of that budget, it was a tiny budget. I think Terence has said before that a lot of it was to do with the fact we couldn’t afford to do [war re-enactments], but also he has a love of voiceovers and I think it works really wonderfully over that archive footage. There are some really cool, bold choices, there’s a certain track he uses that is interspersed between the soldiers marching and cattle being herded.
CL: Riders In The Sky.
JL: That’s it. I didn’t miss that sort of true reenactment at all as the whole point is the aftermath and the effect on these men. Even the scene with the guy screaming in one of the wards does it twenty times over, more so than if you spent four months shooting trench scenes. I think it’s super effective.
EJ: Definitely. Jack, it seems the main journey Siegfried’s character is on is one of a continual search for redemption both in youth and old age. What was it like slipping into that mindset for a while?
JL: It’s quite easy because the biggest thing I identified with him was his regret, and I’m thirty-one now so I’ve got many myself – that was very easy to tap into. I’m not a soldier, I’m not a poet, I live in the 2020s, not the 1920s so the only way into that was through his regret and just as you said, his constant seeking for redemption and a place. I mean, he pinged about, at one point he was an outstanding soldier nicknamed ‘Mad Jack’ which is quite appropriate and then the next minute he was converting to Catholicism, he’s a man constantly grasping for acceptance. The guilt of surviving the war is the biggest thing that shaped him, it’s that he didn’t die. I think he lived right into the 50s or 60s and all these other great poets, Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen all died at war, I think there was probably a part of him that was jealous of the romanticism of those guys having died. Definitely, having read his diaries I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a part of him that was jealous of that fact, there were so many ways into him.
Still, ‘Benediction’ by Terence Davies, 2022
“The reason I like doing what I do is not really stories or directors, it’s actors. I love good actors, I’d watch a good actor in a blank room. I couldn’t care less about the story sometimes.”
EJ: There is quite a contrast between both of your characters, Steven Tennant is rather effeminate and narcissistic whereas Siegfried is very introspective. Yet they both move within the Bright Young Things circle of 1920s London and the film really accurately portrays how the upper classes’ homosexuality is somewhat cushioned by their privilege, how was it tackling that subject matter?
CL: I feel like it’s probably really different for both of us because the characters are so different. From what I’ve read and seen and what Terence wrote, the version of Steven Tennant he created, I think with his sexuality you could say how bold he is in what he wears and the way he speaks is potentially some kind of defence. But really, he doesn’t seem to have a very strained or difficult relationship with his sexuality, so that’s not really something I thought about too much because it wasn’t on the page and I didn’t want to impose anything. Like you say, it gives a really nice counterpoint to Siegfried and maybe that’s one of the reasons why he is drawn to him. I was struck watching the movie, a lot of the characters he has relationships with seem to have a more comfortable relationship with his sexuality than he does, maybe not Glen Byam Shaw.
JL: The list of Sassoon’s lovers is remarkable and that group he hung around with, I mean everybody from Ivor Novello to T.E. Lawrence and Glenn Byam Shaw. It makes you feel, first of all, incredibly boring, because hanging about with guys like that is just incredible and I think the film does a really fantastic job of showing again how at the centre of it is him grasping all the time. The fact he could have an affair with someone like Ivor Novello who was a “notorious cad” as Terence would say, and then someone like Steven Tennant who can just move very freely. But, as you very rightly said, you do have to watch this film and the subject of sexuality within it through the prism of the station they had in society, as it would probably be considered a lot safer to be gay because of the protection they had. They knew people high up in government, they knew foreign secretaries and Sassoon got off of his court-martial charge through Robbie Ross knowing someone in government, so they were protected to a certain extent even though it was an extremely dangerous time to be a gay man. I think the film does such a wonderful job of that, for me, the film is not about being gay in the 1920s, he just happened to be gay. It’s more about him being hurt in love, the love affairs that he had, him being semi-useless at falling in love and walking into fiery rooms when he knows he’s going to get burned.
EJ: We also see the older versions of both of your characters at the end of the film played by Peter Capaldi and Anton Lesser and there is still a level of resentment present all those years later. What was it like watching that relationship come full circle and seeing the older versions of your characters?
CL: I didn’t want to play the weight of the man he becomes before he has become it, so I was trying not to think about the later scenes because I don’t want to know things he didn’t at the time. I loved watching Anton Lesser play an older version of me though, that was fucking great.
JL: I found it quite a scary thing to watch because it really just hit home, this is going to sound stupid but, you do get old. [laughs] You get old, your friends get old and the people around you get old. It was the first time I’d been in anything where there was an older version of me, so it was quite scary but also quite cool to imagine myself as Peter Capaldi when I’m older. Also, just knowing where he came from, how he got there and seeing him still miserable was a real wake-up call to take the bull by the horns. I found it quite a tough thing to watch but wonderful also to watch Peter Capaldi and Anton Lesser who are both fantastic actors.
CL: I love that. I’m thinking of that bit you were talking about where Riders In The Sky is playing and you’re sitting in the church when you turn into the older version of Sassoon, I found that so moving. You don’t really see a CGI morph very often and it could be done really badly but I couldn’t believe it when I saw that.
Still, ‘Benediction’ by Terence Davies, 2022
EJ: The film closes with a reading of Wilfred Owen’s poem Disabled which is silently read by Sassoon but not heard by the audience earlier on in the film, what do you feel the significance is of closing with that work and how does it shape the idea people will be left with when the credits roll?
JL: The biggest message of this film for me is wasted opportunity and wasted youth, to me that’s the tragedy of the film and the tragedy of Sassoon. I also think that’s what Disabled [Wilfred Owen’s 1917 poem] is about, he’s sat there in a wheelchair, his legs that have been blown to smithereens, talking about no longer being able to touch the small waist of girls or play football, it’s so heartbreaking. I think the real tragedy is that you have Sassoon sitting on a bench completely still able-bodied, fit as the day he was born with all the opportunities and all the station that anyone could ever wish for in the world and he is miserable, but the guy he is looking at doesn’t have any legs and probably has severe PTSD. I think Terence is making the point that not all scars from war are visible. It’s the most perfect way to end it, phenomenal.
Benediction will be released in cinemas on May 20th.