Reviews: ‘Benediction’ and ‘Eternals’


Terence Davies is one of arthouse-lovers’ more demanding directors, from ‘The House of Mirth’ and ‘The Deep Blue Sea’, films in which literary forms are thrillingly re-interpreted, to ‘The Long Day Closes’, with its infamous minutes-long close-up of a piece of carpet (strangely moving). His films are restrained and nuanced. These days he struggles to find an audience.

But Davies has the ability to translate our hopes, fears and dreams into cinematic form on very, very low budgets. He does this by presenting beautifully lit tableaux, often symmetrical and satisfying to see, which places him halfway between Wes Anderson and Peter Greenaway, but he allows the human face to show us emotional pain. His scripts are less essential than his visuals but Davies’ severity remains.

This melancholy exploration of the life of Siegfried Sassoon, spinning through the decades from terror in the trenches to bitter old age, is simply extraordinary; Jack Lowden sensitively portrays the hopeful young poet, Peter Capaldi the disillusioned old man. To many Sassoon appeared to lead a charmed life. He came from a ‘good family’, he survived the war and was decorated for heroism, only to declare himself a conscientious objector, whereupon he was bundled away into a sanitarium to avoid a court marshal and possible firing squad.

This is the first time the director has accessed his own troubled sexuality to find the story’s core. The timeframes blur and the youth morphs into the man; Sassoon befriends the doomed war poet Wilfred Owen, beds a series of unsuitable young men (which you could do if you were in the right class), falls in love with the spite-filled Ivor Novello (a caricatured portrayal from the cruelly handsome Jeremy Vine) and fails to appreciate the loyal one he should have kept. His life becomes a quest for salvation that cannot succeed.

Davies brings to life Sassoon’s poetry and the poems of others psychologically damaged by the Great War. He incorporates war footage and dream imagery to simple effect; in one shot he sequentially shows all of the people who matter in Sassoon’s life looking direct to camera against doors and a soft sussurance of English rain. It is more magical than it sounds.

Davies pulls his master shot out of the bag at the climax in what could be one of British cinema’s most devastating moments; a long study of the human face. It’s the most English of films, reticent, polite and tragic (and drily funny in its portrayal of the Bloomsbury hangers-on). It won’t mean much to that many people but I’m so glad it exists. The war did not just damage young bodies but cast a shadow across the twentieth century.

On a lighter note, it turns out that ‘Benediction’ did not make a good double bill with ‘Eternals’, appealing to another group of hardcore fans. Director Chloé ‘Nomadland’ Zhao is here constrained by the narrow demands of the Marvel Comics Universe. A near three-hour origin epic filled with a galaxy-shaping plot, self-important declamatory dialogue, earthquakes, fights, gibberish exchanges, explosions including a tasteless sequence set in Hiroshima, and characters randomly appearing and vanishing between the millennia-spanning action as gods turn into robots and gain humanity or something.

The $200 million film deals with so many abstracts that its opaque storyline all but disappears from view. It’s an ‘everyone into the pool’ saga that managed, for all its din and bluster, to be incredibly boring. It even forces in an odd gay moment that’s entirely irrelevant other than to show the world how much Marvel cares.

Perhaps underneath all the laser-beam from-frou there’s a story that’s more meaningful to MCU nerds. Could it have taken a leaf from ‘Benediction’s book of restraint and taste? Clearly it’s what the director wanted. Instead it’s an outrageous exercise in franchise building, laying the foundations for a thousand more interplanetary superhero exploits. The next film (‘Eros’ with Harry Styles, no less, who pronounces his name ‘Aye-Rose’ in the trailer) is already lined up. I won’t be watching and I imagine only diehards will bother, if they get around to making it; ‘Eternals’ bombed at the box office, and rightly so.


28 comments on “Reviews: ‘Benediction’ and ‘Eternals’”

  1. Helen+Martin says:

    So Benediction will fail due to its niche market and delicate touch while Eternals is just a tasteless blare across the viewers’ sensibilities but at least Benediction loses less money? I have a feeling that Benediction would leave me in tears, but I rather hope I get to see it at some point because it was the poets of the first great war that shaped my world view. (Not that my awareness goes back to that time.)

  2. BarbaraBoucke says:

    You’re ahead of me, Helen. English Lit in a Catholic High School in California didn’t include Siegfried Sassoon or any of his contemporaries. Hopefully I will be able to find the film in a format I can access in a few months time. I would like
    to see it. I did look him up after reading this and was interested to learn of his connection to Fr. Ronald Knox. I have read and re-read Knox’s six mysteries. Ivor Novello I have some knowledge of – althought certainly not a lot. I’ve always found interesting the inter-connected threads of people’s lives – if that’s the way to word it.

  3. Roger Allen says:

    Looking forward to Benediction.
    I don’t think Davies’s films lose money, Helen Martin; he favours economy, and eschews special effects and actors want to work with him, but an apparent big loss-maker may suit a studio better than a mildly profitable small film

  4. BarbaraBoucke says:

    I almost forgot. Thank you, Mr. Fowler, for the phrase “soft sussurance of English rain”.

  5. JB says:

    Jeremy Irvine as Ivor Novello, not Jeremy Vine.
    That would have been interesting casting…

  6. Jan says:

    I thought that “Deep Blue Sea” was that horror film about sharks with enhanced intelligence ?
    With the bloke and his pet parrot and Samuel L Jackson getting eaten early on….was a good picture.

    Am i having another “Wasteland” type moment?

  7. Roger says:

    There’s another portrait of Sassoon in Gillies MacKinnon’s film Regeneration and Pat Barker’s novels, which inspired it, and Sassoon’s deliberately unrevealing memoirs and novels, BarbaraBoucke. I’d guess that Helen Martin – like me and tens of thousands of english schoolchildren – was introduced to the WWI poets at A-level in school – a very formative age in literary taste.

  8. Stu-I-Am says:

    In a very real way, it was fortunate that Sassoon was bundled off to be treated for his conscientious objection i.e. ‘shell shock’ at the Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland. He met the poet Wilfred Owen there and was instrumental in having his searing anti-war poetry published after Owen returned to service and was killed in action, just seven days before the Armistice. We might never have heard of Wilfred Owen but for Sassoon.

    “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” — Wilfred Owen

  9. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Jan – because I am continually getting things mixed up in my head (usually people in my sister-in-law’s family history) – I looked on Google. The film you saw was, indeed, titled Deep Blue Sea and was about what you remembered. The film Terence Davies directed was The Deep Blue Sea (one word difference in the title) with a different story line.

  10. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Roger, you are very probably correct. I had Shakespeare and Charles Dickens – one of each per the four years of high school. I remember A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the title not to be mentioned in the theatre. We all were shown the
    1953 film version of Julius Caesar, so we may have “read” that play as well. Somewhere in my chaos I have a small thick paperback book of American poets from high school days, so we at least got some kind of introduction to someone who wrote after 1900.

  11. Stu-I-Am says:

    Thanks to a friend with benefits — the primary one being able to allow me to see films before official release — I was able to see Benediction. Have been a Davies fan for two reasons: he is a superb filmmaker and he makes you almost always feel better about your state in life as opposed to that of his characters. Benediction does that in spades!

  12. Debra Matheney says:

    I was deeply moved by the Barker trilogy and the film Roger references. The politics of recovery to get fit to return to battle enraged me. The poetry which emerged should be more widely read. Looking forward to this film and fully expect to weep.

  13. Jan says:

    Cheers Barbara!
    This all sounds a bit too highbrow for me I was probably better off with the Sharky Horror flick

  14. Roger says:

    Is there much difference between the human species and ” sharks with enhanced intelligence”?
    Even the enhanced intelligence is questionable.

  15. Joan says:

    Sounds a bit dreary to me. We also had to study some of these poets, I remember Wilfred Owen but not Sassoon so much, and of course Rupert Brooke. I guess being Canadian we always did John Macrae of course. Shakespeare every year and some classics, I think because it was forced on us some of us never looked at them again. They teach differently now thank goodness! I can still recite The Quality of Mercy from the Merchant of Venice, or Marc Anthony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar, unfortunately they never leave my head. My better half had a lifelong dislike of Shakespeare and school uniforms in that order!

  16. Helen+Martin says:

    Oh, Joan, just like my high school curriculum, but I tried to get an interest in putting on As You Like It. It didn’t happen.
    Your better half and school uniforms. Raised in Britain? or private schooled here? Funny how a single word can imply a great deal about a person.

  17. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Bless Maggie Armitage!

  18. Liz+Thompson says:

    At my grammar school, 1960s, we did Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at both O and A level. The English teacher told us middle English was easier than remembering who wrote what, and why, in the alternative book of modern poetry. Since I read a lot of poetry anyway, I am convinced he was right.

  19. Paul+C says:

    I was a bit luckier with set books at school : White Fang by Jack London who remains a favourite writer and incredibly one teacher brought in a few pages of The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler to analyse which knocked me for six at the age of 11 and still does. A flash of lightning on every page said Billy Wider. These were exceptions tho’ – I mainly discovered writers and books by ransacking second hand bookshops and the local library on my own.

  20. Joan says:

    Helen, hope you are keeping warm, you are very, very cold out there! My Husband was from Ulster, and I met him here, he had a real dislike of grey flannel for years. He had an old Etonian Schoolmaster who refused to let let the boys play Soccer as that was common, they had to play Rugger.

  21. Steve Namkoong says:

    This is not the most ideal location for this unusual request, but here goes…
    I have an entire collection of Bryant & May signed UK 1st/1st, with the sole exception of The Invisible Code. I am 66 years old, and Mr Fowler’s past-prime-time creations are appreciated in this youth oriented world.

    I attempted to find a copy, but after 5+ years, have had no success. Does anyone know where I can locate a signed UK 1st?

  22. admin says:

    Steve, you have just missed me clearing out all of my old copies (running out of room), but if you find a copy I’ll happily sign it for you.

  23. Roger Allen says:

    “he allows the human face to show us emotional pain…. Davies pulls his master shot out of the bag at the climax in what could be one of British cinema’s most devastating moments; a long study of the human face.”

    I’d been trying to remember what that reminded me of, Admin, and I thought of The Great War TV series. The title sequence featured a photo (doctored it seems), of a soldier’s face staring at the viewer for a long time. You’re probably too young to have been directly influenced, but both Davies and I are old enough to have received and accepted the image of an unmoving human face as a tragic trope. Shots like that in a film on Sassoon seem too apt to be coincidental.

  24. Helen+Martin says:

    I think I’ve seen the photo you mean, Roger, and agree that it defines tragedy. No, it’s not likely to have been coincidental. We carry imagery like that around in the back of our heads and they come forward on their own when needed.

  25. BarbaraBoucke says:

    Steve Namkoong – I don’t know if you’ll see this but Abe Books has a U.S. seller with a signed U.S. printing. There are a number of copies of the book on eBay, but they may be the U.S. publication and you said you were looking for the UK printing. Anyway, I thought I’d pass along the info. just in case.

  26. Helen+Martin says:

    Oh, Joan! Ulster is another world. My Mother-in-law was born there and her Mother was a powerful woman. Many Ulster people are. Grandma Campbell discovered her husband had helped unload guns for the Prods and put her foot down. “I’m not raising children to shoot at their neighbours” and insisted they come to Canada. As for rugby being higher class, you don’t hear much about rugby riots the way you do soccer ones so perhaps it is. My husband didn’t play, but the school (public) did have a team and Ken photographed the matches.
    The temperature is running about 5 to 10 degrees below zero celsius but there’s sunshine and it snowed last night so it is beautiful. Glad I don’t have to go out. I had a meeting yesterday at which we decided not to open our seniors’ centre but will prepare some courses for on-line registration. I have said I’ll work up a calligraphy short course. Always something new to work on. Happy New Year, everyone and let’s hope it is a good one. Remember the old king stepping into the dark ahead in trust?

  27. Roger Allen says:

    “you don’t hear much about rugby riots the way you do soccer ones”

    In Rugby – Rugby Union, at least, Helen – it’s the players that riot. It’s the game that invented “Get your retaliation in first.”

  28. bernyAmach says:

    They find consolation in each other in regards to their sexual identity and societal norms that have affected their growth as individuals. Davies shows Sassoon exploring different forms of love with different men.

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