This week Film Comment is reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival, both virtually and in-person. One of the most anticipated films at this year’s festival is Benediction, the latest feature by British master Terence Davies. It’s a biopic of the English anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon—although, biopic is a bit of a misnomer. Like A Quiet Passion, Davies’s 2015 film about Emily Dickinson, Benediction is a beautifully impressionistic, personal, and indeed poetic account of Sassoon’s very colorful life. Davies jumps back and forth in time, melds archival footage and arch scenes of drama, and stages some stunning tableaux that tune us into the ups and downs of Sassoon’s life as a gay man, and the despair that haunted him and his poetry after his stint in World War I.
Film Comment Co-Deputy Editor Devika Girish sat down with the Davies to talk about the film as well as an eclectic range of subjects: beauty, eternity, poetry, Catholicism, the power of silence, his experiences in the U.K’s gay scene, the horrors of reality television, and more. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and make sure you subscribe to the podcast and to the Film Comment Letter so you can keep up with all our upcoming Toronto and New York Film Festival coverage.
Listen to the full conversation and read an edited transcript below.
This episode is sponsored by Kino Lorber, presenting Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Wife of a Spy, now in theaters: bit.ly/wifeofaspy
I am curious to know when you first encountered Siegfried Sassoon. Do you remember the first poem of his that you read?
I was applying for lots of drama schools, which I never, ever got into. What you had to do in England—then, anyway—was a piece of Shakespeare and something of your own choice. And somebody had introduced me to “Concert-interpretation,” which I just fell in love with. It’s very, very funny, but in beautiful English. I did that as my audition piece, and I finally got in. But I hadn’t really read him properly, really. I’d been reading little bits here and there, his war poems. Then six years ago in Toronto, I was asked if I would be interested [in making this film]. I said yes, I’ll start reading the poetry properly. That’s when I started to read about his life. He went everywhere; he knew everybody. I read three separate biographies, and they were all this thick. It was incredible. I had to see what I responded to, and after reading these huge biographies, what I warmed to was a) the First World War turned him into a great poet. Britain was the only place that produced three great poets out of that awful conflict.
Who are the other two, in your estimation?
Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. They’re just marvelous!
The fact that Sassoon was gay, I responded to that. I was quite shocked that he got married, but then, a lot of people of that era did just that. Him turning Catholic really did appall me, because I was brought up a Catholic, and am very much a lapsed Catholic now but full of Cathology, Catholic do’s and don’ts. There’s a kind of brainwashing. Also what also ran through all of that was that there was something that was intensely sad. A huge sense of regret, a desperate need to be redeemed. And the tragedy is, of course, that no one else can redeem us. No religion can redeem us. We have to redeem ourselves, and that’s very hard to do, because very often you lose hope, and the next thing to hope is despair. And despair is worse than any pain. But human beings hope, and we hope because we must.
What I was really struck by in the film is that you’re able to tap into Sassoon’s despair, especially in his later years, but his youth—or the period after he went to the Craiglockhart War Hospital and had affairs with men—is so joyous. Even though his queer life is conducted in the shadows, and there’s a lot of cattiness and betrayal, there’s a great sense of liberation in his milieu and his relationships with men. That part of the film kind of turns into a gay melodrama.
The thing that people who’re not British don’t understand is that if you were in the upper class, you could get away with being gay, openly gay. Because they knew everybody. I mean, when Sassoon was wounded, Winston Churchill and his mother came to see him! Robbie Ross knew everybody, and Robbie Ross was a wonderful man, because he supported Oscar Wilde when nobody else did. In a way, it was a kind of club, because they were all upper-class. That doesn’t mean it’s any more difficult being gay then, than now. In an odd way, it might be more difficult now. Freedom brings its own terrors.
My stance is this: I realized I was gay when I was 11. I prayed and did everything that I could, from the point of view of Catholicism, to be forgiven, and I wasn’t. For two years I lived with a woman, and it didn’t work out. When I went out into the gay scene in this country, I was appalled. It was sexually venal, cruel, narcissistic. I thought, I can’t live a life like this. But [Sassoon] was different. The people he went to bed with were usually people who were horrible to him. He fell for men who were pretty awful. And the person he loved deeply, Wilfred Owen, of course, he never consummated..
What I do have to say, I think the best side of gay men is that they are awfully good company, because they’re really funny. And I wanted to make it funny. I didn’t want it to be solemn, because there’s nothing worse than people going around being “I’m a great writer.” Yawnsville! It’s got to be fun.
Those scenes absolutely sparkle with humor. The quips that these men trade with each other… I thought, “All of these men need to be on Twitter!” Which makes me think you should be on Twitter, because you wrote them.
Well, I’ve finally joined the 21st century. I’m now on Instagram at @terencedaviesofficial, and I read some of [Sassoon’s] poems and some of my own. So there you are, kids! Enjoy! Be miserable with me.
Listeners, join the party at @terencedaviesofficial on Instagram!
Yes. There’s a verse for every occasion.
All your films have been period films. Would you ever want to make a film set in the present?
I don’t think I can, because I’m afraid of the modern world. I’m frightened of it. There’s aspects of modern life that I just find unbearable. The narcissism and venality, I just can’t bear. Reality shows are the absolute anus mundi. I mean, one time, I was sent a thriller. For God’s sake, me, directing it! It wouldn’t be so much Fast and Furious as Slow and Rather Irritated. [laughs].
In this film, you’re capturing some universals, though—some things that don’t change with time. And that includes narcissism, venality, upper-class indulgence, and also the wrestling with faith. The scene where Sassoon’s converts to Catholicism is filmed beautifully. And the only answer he has for why he’s converting is that he’s searching for “something permanent.” This grappling with eternity feels so relevant, even now.
But of course, nothing is permanent—certainly not religion. I think he genuinely felt he could find truth, whatever truth that is. The two things religion is for is to control human sexuality and make death palatable. The first has got nothing to do with them, and you can’t make death palatable. You can’t. If there is some kind of afterlife, I hope one’s anima goes into the ether, forever. I think that’s rather nice. I can’t imagine being there with a lot of Seventh Day Adventists singing with a harmonium. For God’s sake, hell is better, if only to stop the tedium. [Laughs]
There’s a scene in A Quiet Passion that everyone was talking about, where you used a digital effect to age Emily Dickinson and the Dickinson family. You use it again in this film to a beautiful effect. To see the passage of time animated like that… there’s something deeply bereaving about it. What made you return to it?
I think it’s because I’m 75, and I’m very aware of mortality. But I always have been, even as a child. I mean, my father… The body was in the house for 10 days with that awful smell, and [to experience] that when you’re 6 or 7… you never forget it. I’m conscious of the transience of things, the loss of things. The worst things, of course, are the bouts of happiness and ecstasy you have. Even as a child, something inside me knew that at the apex of ecstasy, it’s gone and it will never, ever come back. Ever. I’m obsessed with time. One of my great loves is Four Quartets, which is about the nature of time and mortality, and also, the terror of living, which I think is in [“The Love Song of J. Alfred] Prufrock”. And he wrote that when he was 22! It’s not fair, is it? It’s not fair! But the terror that’s in those lines: “That is not it at all,/That is not what I meant, at all.” and “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo.” And he’s terrified.
You have a great memory.
When you love something… I went to the movies all the time with my sisters, and I could remember shots and dialogue, because I thought everybody did that. No one told me that they didn’t. If I love something, I want to try to memorize part of it, because it gives me such joy. There are four or five sonnets by Shakespeare, which are…oh, God! “Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore…” [Recites the entirety of Sonnet 60].
Wow, I see why you got into drama school with your recitation. That was impressive!
[Laughs] He wrote it 500 years ago, and it’s still true.
On the subject of time, I’d love to know more about the use of archival footage in Benediction. When we spoke about the film a few months earlier, you’d said there’s no use trying to recreate the horrors of the war—the best you can do is go get the footage.
When I was in my early 20s, they made one of the great documentaries in this country called The Great War, narrated by Michael Redgrave. Just wonderful footage that’s always stayed with me. The thing I don’t like about a lot of films made in this country about the First World War is this idea of the long Edwardian summer where everyone floats around being happy and wonderful. Yes, if you were rich! If you worked in a factory or a mine, it was not so fun. So I definitely didn’t want to do that. I wanted to make the interiors look sumptuous, because when you juxtapose what the [soldiers] were about to go into or go back from, it heightens the sense of relief.
Also, that archival footage is unbelievably moving, monstrous, and beautiful. One of the first things I chose was the interior of a recruiting office. Small, all these young lads writing names, and this light is coming through the window. It looks like Vermeer! There’s another moment where Tommys are moving toward the horizon, and the horizon is dark, black, and threatening. How can you recreate foot rot? They always look too clean [in the movies]. And the worst thing of all is that as soon as they begin speaking, you see these teeth that have lives of their own, because they’re so perfect. They didn’t have good teeth because they’re diets were awful. If you do that, you then make it anodyne, and it wasn’t anodyne. Imagine being in a trench! You go over the top with your friends, and they get blown to pieces in front of you. What on earth do you do? There’s a wonderful little documentary called The Last Voices of the First World War of five men who are dead now but had survived long enough to make these recordings. The gentleness… the camaraderie was wonderful. One man remembered a poem that his friend had written, and the constant refrain was au revoir, but he couldn’t pronounce it, and so he’d say “ariva.” You’d look at this man and think, you’ve actually been there and survived. How on earth have you done it?
Your films are extremely beautiful, and this one is no exception. Each image, each shot, looks like a painting, but you’re able to weave it so seamlessly with archival images of the absolute horror. I had to turn away from the screen at moments when the footage showed people mutilated, bodies in the trenches. I’m curious—how do you reconcile beauty in a world with so much ugliness?
We can find beauty in life, and it makes it all the more wonderful because it’s rare or transient. When I was a child growing up in Liverpool in the mid-’50s, Sundays were unbelievably awful. I loathe them to this day. Nothing happened. And so, with my best friend Albert, I went down to the art gallery and looked at [Benjamin West’s 1806 painting,] “The Death of Nelson.” I knew how to live even then. [Laughs]
It’s an odd thing, but you can find beauty almost anywhere. When it comes to you, even when it’s transient, like the light outside the house—it’s going but it strikes something in you which is deep. I think we have to not look at the ugliness in the world. Maybe that’s hiding your head in the sand, but I just know we have to look at something better than ourselves. Vermeer is my great love, and what’s so beautiful about them is that you feel the world beyond the frame is benign. Then you look at someone like Hammershøi, where it’s almost exactly the same, but beyond those frames, the world is a menace. It’s that constant oscillation between the two. There are times when you think, what is the point of carrying on? And then something lovely will happen, and that makes it worth going on. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but then so is ugliness.
For me, personally, there is something about perceiving beauty that provokes almost a religious ecstasy. It’s in those moments that I feel there is something beyond this world.
There used to be this thing called quarantore, which is Latin for 40 days, when the altar at my parish church was filled with candles. They were lit, and you just went and said grace. That was lovely. Those were the images I had when I was a child. But the biggest form of beauty was the movies. I was taken at seven to see Singin’ in the Rain. How could you not fall in love with movies after that? How could you not?
I’ve also been thinking about the use of silence Benediction. You use music very strategically in certain moments, but so many of the scenes have this stillness, this beautiful silence. How do you design the soundscape of your films?
The sound is very important because it tells you an awful lot, like music. But you have to know where to place them, and the actors have to feel the silence, feel the pause. When it’s felt, it is different than when you just pause and go on. Before my father died, he would go into these violent rages, but then it would all go quiet. And that quiet wouldn’t last for minutes, it would last for hours, and then he would explode again. It was terrifying. Even now, I can go into a room of people and know who’s had a row, and I’m on edge.
But it’s very like music. My great love is Bruckner. There’s a wonderful slow moment in his seventh symphony, where there’s this huge climax topped by a cymbal clash, which one of his students recommended. And then there’s silence, and then the tune comes back just on violins. Ah! That silence is just fabulous. When it’s right, it’s right, but it’s something that’s got to be felt. In film school, we had an exercise in our first year, and I came up with it at the very last moment: a man and a woman sitting in utter silence. She says “yes” and he says “no.” That’s all. And then you see their feet at the end of the bed, and they start to giggle. You can say a lot by the simplest of methods, but it has to be orchestrated like a symphony. It has to be thought out first. You can only improvise if you’ve prepared. It’s the Catholic in me. I’m terrified of making a mistake. It’s almost as bad as trying not to fart in company! There are no end to these terrors.
I love that that is your précis of your Catholicism—it’s like trying not to fart in company. [Laughs]
One time you had to do it in Latin, and it would have been acceptable. [Laughs]
One scene in Benediction where silence is used to incredible effect is when Wilfred Owen gives his poem “Disabled” to Sassoon. You just hold the moment, with reverse shots of Wilfred waiting, Sassoon reading. Anyone who has ever written something and shared it with someone can just feel the tension and the anticipation of that moment when the reader looks up. Tell me about staging that scene.
Well, it had a dual function narratively. I’ve used it before, that thing of waiting, in A Quiet Passion, when Emily gives the little booklet of the poems to the reverend. It’s just, as you said, you wait and wait, and it seems like an eternity, as though that time will never, never end. And when it does, I thought, this time we mustn’t hear the poem. And then at the end it comes back in with exactly the same dialogue. That’s when film is most like music—you can drop an idea at the beginning of the movie, and 40 minutes later, it comes to fruition. Also, I had that lovely lad [Matthew Tennyson] who played Wilfred Owen. He’s got such an adorable little face. All you have to do, when the face is right, is to look at it. People’s faces are never still. Their eyes move. All those little things you can’t direct—the things they just do.
I know that neither of us believes in linear time, but I believe we’re almost at the end of the time I have with you. Are you working on anything next?
Well, I’m trying to get money for the next film, a Stefan Zweig novel. He wrote the novella Letter From an Unknown Woman. It’s the greatest film about unrequited love ever made. Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, fabulous black-and-white by Max Ophüls. He came out of copyright about 15 years ago, and I went and got the book everyone says is his best, which is called Beware of Pity, and quite honestly, I couldn’t get through it. But I bought another one called The Post Office Girl, a novel he never finished, so it’s got the most ambiguous ending. It’s a Cinderella story without a happy ending. It’s set in Austria just after the First World War. The Austrian economy has just collapsed, and this girl is living with her mother in awful conditions. Her aunt, who’s gone to America and married someone there and come back, invites her to stay with her for two weeks. So she’s exposed to a world of drama and money, and then it ends. She has to go back to her job. And it’s how she bears that. It’s the most wonderful novel.