Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB
United Kingdom/USA, 2021. EMU Films, BBC Films, British Film Institute, M.Y.R.A. Entertainment, Lipsync Productions, Creative England. Screenplay by Terence Davies. Cinematography by Nicola Daley. Produced by Michael Elliott. Music by Ed Bailie, Abi Leland. Production Design by Andy Harris. Costume Design by Annie Symons. Film Editing by Alex Mackie.
Terence Davies follows his exquisite biopic about poet Emily Dickinson with another look at the life of a creator of verse, this time focusing his attention on writer Siegfried Sassoon. A soldier who served in the Great War and whose fiery, impassioned verses declaiming this great folly of humanity got him in hot water with his superior officers, Sassoon (played in his younger days by a solid Jack Lowden) is sent to be treated for mental illness under the tutelage of exasperated medical officer Julian Sands and kindly psychiatrist Ben Daniels (whose scenes are among the best in the film). There he meets and has unrequited love for Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who would himself become known alongside Sassoon as a leading poetic voice of World War I before his death on the battlefield (another early casualty, the writer Rupert Brooke, completed the trio). Sassoon survives and enters society shattered and searching for permanence, finding little of it in a series of affairs he has with the likes of the cruel beauty of Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine), the melancholy Glen Byam Shaw (Tom Blyth) and the brightest of the “bright young things”, the mercurial but self-centred Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch).
Unable to find consolation in love in a world that doesn’t legitimize his relationships, with men who themselves give him little loyalty privately, and with his most successful days of writing left behind with the war, Sassoon goes further in his quest for something that lasts by marrying a woman, Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips when young, Gemma Jones later), then as an older man (played by Peter Capaldi) converts to Catholicism. Told in the carefully measured beats that Davies pulls off with his own poetic brilliance, this film’s moments of great wit and humour, which the host of appealing gay characters pull with such sophistication, rest comfortably within a moving, melancholy but cathartic examination of a soul that has been set ablaze by the trauma of battle and which can never find rest. Lowden, who rarely raises his voice above a polite tone, portrays the character’s tension with invisible power that later transforms into Capaldi’s unmasked rage decades later; the two actors aren’t well cast together, it’s hard to believe that one will become the other, but perhaps that was the intention, their stark difference Davies’ charting the changes that occurred to a once artistic being who is devastated by his bitterness. It would have been magnificent to have more time with a number of cast members who only make brief appearances here (Daniels, Jones, Geraldine James as Sassoon’s mother), but even with these few quibbles the film takes place alongside the director’s best works.
Toronto International Film Festival: 2021