Embracing Queer Culture
Siegfried Sassoon and Georgia’s Pride Parade: Benediction and March for Dignity
By Marc Glassman
UK (2021), 137 min.
Dir. Terence Davies & screenplay
Starring: Jack Lowden (Siegfried Sassoon), Peter Capaldi (Sassoon as an older man), Simon Russell Beale (Robbie Ross), Jeremy Irvine (Ivor Novello), Kate Phillips (Hester Gatty), Gemma Jones (older Hester), Calam Lynch (Stephen Tennant), Anton Lesser (older Stephen), Ben Daniels (Dr. Rivers), Tom Blyth (Glen Byam Shaw), Matthew Tennyson (Wilfrid Owen)
Benediction should have been the perfect film for Terence Davies, who has, in his vintage age, become a beloved figure in the UK and world cinema. He’s an auteur, whose unsparing depiction of the harrowing realties that his characters confront, exquisite taste, and love of melodrama have made him iconic. Gay, assertive, and granular in his approach to daily realities, Davies has made some of the finest films in the UK over the past 40 years: the semi-autobiographical working class duo Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes; the very personal documentary on Liverpool Of Time and the City; and the brilliant Terrence Rattigan adaptation (with an amazing performance by Rachel Weisz), The Deep Blue Sea.
Siegfried Sassoon, who is deservedly recognised as the greatest British anti-war poet of World War One, is clearly the right subject for Davies. Sassoon’s fame during and after the war can hardly be imagined now. He was a hero, acclaimed for his bravery after his deserved acquisition of the prestigious Military Cross for wartime combat, who risked court martial to insist that the British try to end the bloodshed in the middle of it with his “Finished with War” manifesto. He was quite right—millions of lives could have been saved—but instead he was sent off to Scotland for psychological assessment. There, he met and fell in love with his fellow poet Wilfrid Owen, whose poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” which he clearly influenced, became beloved by millions.
It’s hard to explain the impact of Sassoon and Owen had on the Lost Generation of the 1920s. Imagine David Bowie and Iggy Pop as poets and you’ll get the picture. Owen died in the last week of the War, but Sassoon survived to become someone immersed in the myth of his own making. While not a part of the famously transgressive, sexually adventurous Bright Young Things, which dominated the British press in the Twenties, Sassoon did have a long affair with the gorgeous charismatic aristocrat Stephen Tennant, who took a leading role in the acclaimed novels Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. He was a close friend of Edith Sitwell and Lady Ottoline Morel, famous eccentric upper-class artists and had passionate relationships with Prince Philipp of Hesse, actor Glen Byram Shaw and the brilliant composer and actor Ivor Novello.
The heroism during the war, the breakdown and manifesto and Sassoon’s affairs are depicted quite well in Davies’ film, though he lingers far too long on the poet’s relationships with Novello and Tennant. No doubt that they were important in his life, but Davies relies overly much on brittle humour and arch deliveries to convey the emotions of those relationships. The film dwells so much on dinners and overly wrought scenes that we never find out that Sassoon was writing novels, including the genuinely great Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. Perhaps that’s why the film offers a surprise when Sassoon changes his mind in mid-life, marrying the aristocratic Hester Gatty, having a son, George, with her and eventually embracing Catholicism.
What caused Sassoon’s conversion? Davies doesn’t offer an interpretation. The wonderful Peter Capaldi, one of the best Dr. Who’s is given little to do as the aging Sassoon beyond anger when dealing with lovers, an ex-wife and even his beloved son. If you didn’t know, you would surely have never guessed that the Sassoon family was the richest Sephardic Jews in the world. Though never mentioned, that’s why Siegfried could pursue his art and loves without a second thought.
There are parts of Benediction that are phenomenal. Davies uses archival footage of the War over beautifully rendered readings of Sassoon’s poems in scene after scene and they are all always great. This is the heart of the matter: Sassoon’s voice is brilliant, and Davies knows it. So does Jack Lowden, who plays the poet and is one of the film’s producers. Lowden and Capaldi are wonderful as Sassoon. The cast of excellent British thespians are unsurprisingly wonderful. Kudos to the talents of Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irvine, Kate Phillips, Gemma Jones, Calam Lynch and the rest for their professionalism.
Lovers of poetry, queer culture and British history will enjoy this film. But Davies never comes to grips with Sassoon: he remains an enigma to us. The film is way too long; 30 minutes could have been cut. Though Davies has made an artistic film, its flaws overwhelm it. Still, there’s enough to make it enjoyable, for its appropriate audience.
19th Annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival
Live at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema through May 29
Digital access across Canada May 30-June 2
Free to all, digitally and in person
Film reviewed—one of five at the festival—is:
March for Dignity
(U.S./Georgia, 74 min, 2020)
Dir. John Eames
One of the great things about seeing documentaries is that you encounter parts of the world you have never seen before. In the context of a documentary oriented Human Rights Festival, this is a mixed blessing as you will likely find out bad things about the locale you’re viewing, but in March for Dignity, the country of Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin–a picturesque region in the Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas, is shown in its complexity with genuine understanding.
March for Dignity focuses on Georgia’s LGBTI+ activists, who have been fighting unsuccessfully to mount a non-violent Pride parade in the capital city of Tbilisi over the past decade. Their opposition of right-wing populists is given a fair shake, allowed to say repeatedly that the queer community is welcome to be themselves but a parade, which they view as propaganda, brings out their violent repressive nature. Georgia’s law does accept homosexuality, so it seems that the anger against marches is really about making sure that LGBTI+ way of life isn’t celebrated.
That said, the violence we see in March for Dignity is appalling. Footage of parades from 2013 and 2014 is shown and the aftermath remains scary even now. We see queer demonstrators transported out of the parade site in a yellow bus targeted by the purportedly law-abiding populists, who throw rocks, breaking windows, while foul language is used to denigrate them. People are hit and hurt, and the anger is palpable.
In 2019, when most of the film was shot, the question confronting the leaders was “how do we mount a parade and not be targeted by more appalling behaviour?” The answer took time as a strategy was mounted. Meanwhile, the roving doc camera captured the preparations for the parade and the mounting opposition against it. That tension, which makes the film compulsively watchable, is resolved in the best possible manner as the LGBTI+ organizers, all of whom speak English quite well, and are subtle thinkers, pull off two media coups involving a drone and an early morning demo. Both work brilliantly.
March for Dignity is a smart, positive doc, well worth seeing. If you watch it—and you should—you’ll see a truly relevant film, one of the few shot in Tbilisi to be seen in the West. It’s a city that is quite beautiful and part of a country, Georgia, that should be embraced before Putin decides to gobble it up.