Within his short filmography, rising Scottish actor Jack Lowden has shown immense acting range in films like Mary Queen of Scots, Kindred, and the overlooked Fighting With My Family. With Benediction, he has found a prime acting showcase that deserves to bring his career to new heights.
In Benediction, Lowden plays Siegfried Sassoon, the famed British poet who was sent to a psychiatric facility for his anti-war stance during WWI, had affairs with several men while being closeted, and developed a crisis in faith as an older man (played by Peter Capaldi) when he converted to Catholicism. The film doesn’t shy away from his life story being a somber affair, yet Lowden still guides it with magnetism and transparency. During sequences like his conversations with his therapist Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels) at the psych facility, Lowden exudes a low-key charm that masks Sassoon’s distress over hiding his sexual nature and provides Lowden, and Sassoon, with some of the film’s most honest moments and even a bit of levity.
When a spark develops between Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), a fellow poet and facility patient, even that comes with a sad undercurrent. As the euphoric glances they give towards each other and their buoyant tango dancing serve as forms of erotic intimacy, it’s clear to both of them that they can’t act further on their desires. The fact that it’s one of the few stable connections that Sassoon has with another male only stimulates the heartbreak.
Despite the heartbreak and doomed affairs that would follow after that pivotal separation, along with the indignation in Lowden’s poetic narration spoken over black-and-white war montages dispersed throughout the picture, writer/director Terence Davies (The House of Mirth, The Long Day Closes) manages to write in bouts of witty humor so that Benediction avoids slipping further into melodrama than necessary. The colorful and occasionally CGI transition sequences across time from young to old Sassoon give the film a dose of style and panache.
Surrounding Lowden are a host of actors doing stellar work as well. Chief among Geraldine James as Sassoon’s overly concerned, but very open for the time, mother Theresa Thornycroft, Ben Daniels as the aforementioned hospitable Dr. Rivers, and a deliciously nasty Jeremy Irvine, even if his portrayal of Sassoon’s slithery flame, popular British composer and actor Ivor Novello, who leans a bit too heavily into the “flamboyant gay villain” stereotype even if historically accurate for the one-time Hitchcock star.
But it’s Jack Lowden who remains the anchor of the somber yet lyrical Benediction. He successfully blends allure, desolation, and ire into his refined portrayal of the unsung anti-war poet and captivates from his first frame right down to the shattering final scene. Easily the best work of his ascending career.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Benediction is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
Image courtesy of TIFF