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,Â 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 ChloÃ© ‘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.