“Friends may come, friends may go. Enemies are always faithful.”
While I haven’t been following Jack Lowden’s career with as much attention as other people’s, it hasn’t been lost on me that he is an actor to be excited about whose contributions have greatly benefited the projects he’s been in. Whether as a soldier in Dunkirk, or an amateur wrestler in Fighting with My Family, Lowden has continued to be the kind of acting presence that hones in on a character with the kind of empathic sensibility that all great performers have. At this point, a great showcase is what this actor needs; a role in a film that shows the skills and range he possesses, which up until now, have largely been relegated to the sidelines. Benediction, unfortunately, isn’t that film.
In post-WWI England, aspiring gay poet Siegfried Sassoon (Lowden) has completed a stint at a mental hospital for soldiers after being sent there following his strong objections to the war. His stay there has a profound impact on his work, which elevates him to a position within proper British society and sets him on a course of trying to find his place in both life and love.
There are plenty of stylistic choices behind the reasons why Benediction doesn’t work, specifically the glacial pacing, the refusal to let scenes breathe properly, or a reluctance to elaborate on certain character changes that take place. None of this is excusable as it only makes Benediction such an uneven slog of a film that does nothing to serve the people or the era in which it takes place. There’s a mix of contemporary sensibilities and the desperate need to not feel contemporary that seems to be hovering around each of the film’s overlong acts. This all eventually becomes distracting to the point where it doesn’t matter which lover has just departed or what bitchy comment Siegfried’s one-time lover Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) has just made. Even the black and white flashbacks to wartime (in which actual footage is used) and the occasional narration of Siegfried reciting his works feels oddly inserted here, suggesting that maybe if writer/director Terence Davies did have a better way of telling this true story, he certainly kept it to himself.
Eventually, Benediction stops trying and just resorts to cheap barbs between its pretty cast as they wrestle with gay love in a predominantly straight society. The usual callbacks to previous scenes are there, several characters are given the chance to storm off in a huff, and a pair of them even get to hash it out years later as old men. In watching Siegfried’s story, you find yourself wishing that the film could work, but Benediction is helpless when it comes to the traps that many “cradle to grave” biopics likewise have trouble avoiding. The worst of these has to be the film’s insistence on becoming another example of onscreen gay victimhood. Here, as in other past titles within the genre, gay characters cannot help but fall victim to the times while being romanticized to the point where authenticity is lost, or at best, compromised. It’s an age-old practice, rooted in cliches and stereotypes that does little in trying to humanize a culture that’s continuously in need of humanization.
As I mentioned before, Lowden has been deserving of more roles that would push him to the forefront and showcase his versatility, which so far remains untapped. Despite my misgivings about it as a whole, Benediction does ultimately manage to do just that. Through his commitment, empathy, and presence, the actor is able to give so much to his character’s journey, he alone makes a case for this film’s existence. Lowden is also in perfect sync with Peter Capaldi, who plays Siegfried in his later years, giving one of his most affecting turns in some time. Besides them, the rest of the ensemble pops up from time to time to recite some overly-written dialogue before leaving as quickly as their feet will carry them. The one exception among the rest of the cast remains Irvine, whose Ivor Novello is actually a bit of fun…until he isn’t.
Gay cinema in the month of pride should be bigger than it currently is. Like any true social seismic shift, change is gradual, as evidenced by the two notable gay cinematic offerings being presented to audiences this June. On the one hand, there’s Fire Island, a comedy that uses laughter to explore the class distinctions that exist in modern gay society, an issue not often taken into consideration. On the other end of the spectrum is Benediction, which, despite admirable intentions and hammering home the torture of experiencing “a love that dare not speak its name,” does very little in terms of tapping into actual gay consciousness. The gay community will always have further to go when it comes to fully realized representations on film. Benediction all but proves this.