Benediction director Terence Davies on gay war poet Siegfried Sassoon, bad sex scenes and tragedy
Terence Davies didn’t know where to start when he took on the monumental task of making a film about Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon rose to fame for his poetry documenting the horrors of the First World War. Today, his work is studied in schools across the world, but a glaring fact that’s often ignored is that he was also a gay man who had relationships with some of the most high-profile men of his era.
That remarkable life is explored in the new film Benediction, which is the latest feature from acclaimed director Terence Davies. To say he’s had a fascinating career would be an understatement – he won acclaim for films like Distant Voices, Still Lives and The House of Mirth, and in 2016, he steered the ship on A Quiet Passion, a delicate film exploring the life of Emily Dickinson.
It was around that time that he was approached to make a film about Sassoon. It felt like a mammoth task, but as he trawled through the poet’s life, he was able to connect with Sassoon’s experiences.
As is explored in Benediction, Sassoon had romances with men such as Ivor Novello before he decided to marry a woman. Davies is 76-years-old – as a gay man who came of age when homosexuality was still criminalised in the UK, he felt a powerful connection with Sassoon.
Terence Davies related to Siegfried Sassoon’s fruitless search for redemption
“It was a monumental life,” Davies tells PinkNews. “He went everywhere, he knew everybody. At first I was kind of dumbstruck – how do I set up this huge life? And then I thought, the best thing to do is to respond to the things that I responded to in what I read. Obviously, I responded to the fact that he was gay. Like a lot of men in that time, he married, and what really drew me is that he converted to Catholicism – I was brought up a Catholic and I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to be a Catholic!”
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The breakthrough for Davies was when he realised that Sassoon was a man who spent his entire life searching for redemption.
“He never found it, and that’s true of me,” Davies says.
While Sassoon never found the redemption he was craving, he did encounter plenty of success – both in his romantic life and as a poet. He won acclaim for his devastating poetry, which portrayed the horrors of the First World War, and he also had romantic entanglements with Prince Philipp of Hesse, a German aristocrat, and the British socialite Stephen Tennant.
Benediction doesn’t shy away from his queerness – instead, it portrays his sexuality in an unflinchingly honest way. There’s even a sex scene between Sassoon (Jack Lowden) and Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine). Was it intentional to make the film so candid when it comes to gay sex and desire?
“Yes, the two most important things in his life was that he was gay and that he was a great poet,” Davies says. “You can’t in any way soften the pill. He chose all the wrong men to fall in love with, with the exception of Wilfred Owen, which was a pure love that they never expressed. That’s why it’s so moving.”
Davies was surprised – and a little annoyed – when somebody told him the sex scene in the film is “not very good”. He’s not particularly enamoured by the general handling of sex in big-budge studio fare.
“With sex scenes, people have got body make up on, they’ve all been to the gym, there’s all this panting and no one ever gets a cramp – no one ever farts!” Davies says. “The point of that scene is not that he’s having sex, but that he’s betrayed Glen Byam Shaw. That’s the point. The sex is incidental.”
Benediction explores the tragedy of gay life in Sassoon’s era
While Sassoon was one of the most prominent gay men of his generation, he ultimately married Hester Gatty and had a child, leaving his queerness behind. Many LGBTQ+ people will relate to that experience. In Benediction, Davies explores the tragedy behind such a life.
“I think they were both naive,” Davies says of Sassoon and Gatty. “In those days, it was sort of this idea that the love of a good woman will cure you. I think they were genuinely naive – she actually did say, ‘I’ve spoken to Stephen Tennant and I know all I need to know,’ which is touching on the one hand but it’s very naive on the other.”
Ultimately, Sassoon and Gatty “drifted” into marriage. The tragedy was that it didn’t work out.
“It wasn’t a happy marriage and I don’t think he got on with his son very well either. You’ve only got to look at photographs of Hester when she’s young and she looks exquisite – I mean, just exquisite – and you see her in her fifties and she’s in despair. I don’t think he did it deliberately, but it’s [a question of] what do you do when you’ve made a mistake? Sometimes you take it out on the person you shouldn’t take it out on.”
It’s not hard to see how Sassoon became a somewhat bitter, angry man – much of his life was defined by the turmoil he experienced after fighting in the First World War. That horror has been encapsulated in his poetry. He was decorated for his bravery on the western front, but he was ultimately admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The war hung over him for his entire life.
Benediction handles that chapter of Sassoon’s life artfully – there are no big budget sequences in the trenches. Instead we get historic footage from the war. The film also incorporates imagery showing some of the devastating injuries soldiers sustained in the trenches.
“There’s something so horrific about the First World War, and it changed the world completely,” Davies says. “I’ve always had an interest in it, but even if you had an unlimited budget, you cannot recreate what it was like on the trenches – you just can’t, and when you see that footage, it’s so powerful. It’s beautiful and horrific at the same time. But you can’t recreate that. As soon as you see it, you know it’s literally and utterly true, and it’s powerful. I said all along, we have to have war footage.”
Because of his experience at war, and because of his sexuality, Sassoon was something of an outsider. It’s stories like these that Davies is drawn to – he’s always felt like an outsider himself. That’s what drew him to A Quiet Passion, his film about Emily Dickinson.
“Even though I came from a large family, I’ve always felt like an outsider looking in on life, not a participant,” Davies says. “What drew me to Emily Dickinson and her poetry was that many, many years ago on a Sunday morning, Granada did a half hour programme that had two 15 minute documentaries in them, and one of them was Emily Dickinson, and it was Claire Bloom reading her poetry – ‘Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me’ – I was drawn to the fact that she wrote and wrote despite the fact that she was only ever published in a provincial newspaper and never gained the acclaim that she deserved. Of the 19th century poets in America, she’s the greatest for me.”
He came to Sassoon’s poetry in a similar way – he recited one of his poems at drama school. It wasn’t long before he warmed to the war poet whose life continues to fascinate.
“I suppose I warmed to Sassoon because I know what it’s like to feel within society, but feeling that you’ve got to protect yourself with some kind of a carapace,” Davies explains.
“When I left school, being gay was a criminal offence. It wasn’t changed until ’67, so there was that constant tension of feeling like a criminal even though you hadn’t done anything, and that’s an awful feeling. If you were very privileged, you could get away with it because you knew the right people. For ordinary people, you could be sent to jail for three years under hard labour.”
Ultimately, Davies believes it’s Sassoon’s flaws that made him such a compelling figure to get the big-screen treatment.
“I suppose I’m drawn to people who are flawed, because I think I am.”
Benediction is out on 20 May in the UK.
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