Real human lives are more complicated than cinematic lives; it shouldn’t be necessary to say it, but it should always be kept in mind. Movie biographies usually have to cut, cut, cut to create a half-glaze of experience, and in the process can oversimplify everything. It was about his relationship with his mother! Or her husband! This traumatic event defines everything that happened next for our hero! Etc.
Terence Davies is one of the most talented filmmakers of the past 40 years, but he faces a unique narrative challenge in something like Blessing. In capturing the story of real British poet Siegfried Sassoon, Davies would have to wrestle with two crucial elements of Sassoon’s experience: his time as a soldier in World War I and his closeted homosexuality. Is it possible to paint a human portrait with enough nuance that it’s clear which part of which of these things shaped who he became?
Blessing opens in 1914, with young Siegfried (Jack Lowden) preparing to go to war in a casual enough manner that it seems he’s more concerned with the fit and smartness of his uniform than anything else. Yet ultimately Siegfried is pressured into making a statement criticizing the British government’s continuation of the war, and manages to dodge a court-martial only by being committed to a mental hospital in Edinburgh. There Siegfried continues to pursue his writing, with fellow poet Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), and also where he first recognizes his struggles with “the love that dare not speak its name”.
In a sense, this is Davies’ second take on a very similar genre of film biography, following his 2016 Emily Dickinson biopic. A quiet passion– about an emotionally isolated poet struggling with unconventional views on relationships and sexuality. Both could be seen as ways for Davies to struggle in his art with his own publicly stated conflicting views on his own homosexuality, and Blessing spends a lot of time exploring Siegfried’s various relationships, most notably with composer/actor Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) and fellow tuberculosis sufferer Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch). Yet none of these relationships are as compelling on screen as Siegfried’s sessions with his therapist, Dr. Rivers (Ben Daniels), during which an unexpected spiritual kinship emerges. Atypically for Davies, it sometimes feels like we’re going through a checklist of the relationships he has to portray, rather than finding the character nugget that’s most intriguing.
Much of this most intriguing material deals with Siegfried’s PTSD, before it was called PTSD. Davies’ cinematic gifts are best showcased during sequences when he illustrates Siegfried’s war poems with archival footage of soldiers in the trenches or as corpses piled high. In theory, the haunting experiences of war that drove Siegfried to risk execution as a deserter should drive much of what comes later, except that the middle hour of Blessing finds that idea disappears almost entirely as the narrative moves through his various lovers on his way to his eventual marriage to socialite Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips).
This tension between the two driving forces of Siegfried’s psychology is further complicated when Davies occasionally turns to Siegfried in the last years of his life (played by Peter Capaldi), including a conversion to Catholicism and a difficult relationship with his son, George (Richard Goulding). The Siegfried we see during these scenes is deeply unhappy, seemingly unable to interact with anyone else, but Davies isn’t particularly keen to connect the dots to make it clear how much of that unhappiness is trauma-related. of the war, and how much of it has to do with denying his sexuality.
Of course, a neat and tidy answer shouldn’t be necessary, and that’s not the only thing that happens in Blessing It’s a beautifully crafted film, full of sly dialogue as Siegfried interacts with the witty ensemble of Jazz Age England. And the performances are uniformly terrific, including Irvine’s Caddish Novello and Daniels’ Kind Doctor. As viewers, however, we yearn to understand the characters presented to us, even if that understanding is an oversimplification. Blessing closes in on Siegfried alone on a park bench, bursting into tears. Does he cry over lost lives? Lost loves? A bit of both? There’s probably no easy answer here, but it’s hard not to want a little more answer from some kindly.