The dialogue is crisp and witty, but Sassoon isn’t exactly a bubbly company. In his poetry, he cannot tear himself away from the memories of the war, which many of his companions avoided. There is a brooding and melancholy side to his personality that will lead to a pattern of giving up.
In 1933, he married Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips), who was 20 years younger than him. In the film, we jump back in time, meeting an older Sassoon (Peter Capaldi), who embraces Catholicism and inflicts personal bitterness on an older Hester (played by Gemma Jones) and their son, George (Richard Goulding) .
As with all of Davies’ films, the story is told very theatrically. To convey the most vivid impression of Sassoon’s personality, the director takes all sorts of liberties. You would never imagine, for example, that the real Sassoon was 47 at the time of his marriage. We go from the war to the post-war period to the 1960s with an almost indecent haste, condensing the time for purely artistic purposes. What takes years seems like a matter of days.
The film unfolds episodically, like a series of sets anatomizing key moments in Sassoon’s life. The conversations can be long, the camerawork patient and static, but each scene contributes to our growing understanding of the character.
To convey the horror and misery of war, Davies relies on old black and white newsreel footage. We watch soldiers marching across cursed battlefields, wallowing in mud or burying their dead. Everywhere there are corpses, disfigured and decomposed, frozen in bizarre poses. We’ve gone from that horrible parade to a cozy club or a lounge where Sassoon is working on an unhappy love story.
More than most directors, Davies lets poetry and music take center stage. The poems are recited at length, in a way that resonates deeply with the visuals. Music is not used simply as a background or to create atmosphere. Each song or melody makes us sit and listen, as if we are attending a performance.
Sometimes the effect can be comedic, as in an old music hall number sung by a War Hospital performer; sometimes disconcerting, like an interpretation of Ghost Riders in the Sky – a 1948 song – which accompanies images of rushing cattle and swarming soldiers on the battlefields of the Western Front. Towards the end of the film, George takes his father to a musical in which the arid rituals of “English” are satirized. No comedy without a hint of sadness or spite; no greatness without pain.
The last salvo of music that takes us out of the film is that of Vaughan Williams Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, accompanied by a poem by Wilfred Owen. It serves as a dramatic counterbalance to the frivolous popular stuff we’ve sampled throughout the story. These vaudeville or musical numbers show a “typically English” desire to put a brave face on a tragic situation. Soldiers suffering from shells are cheered up by a singalong. A cold-blooded Ivor Novello made a career out of writing and performing wildly comedic songs.
While his friends, like Edith Sitwell, composed Byzantine verses to declaim on stage in front of a small audience, Sassoon moved further and further away from the intelligent ensemble. His experience of war changed him forever, rendering him unable to taste the snappy gaiety and hedonism cultivated by his friends. He cannot be indifferent to the tragic and melancholy events of the past. In the midst of so much studied superficiality, he yearns for something meaningful.
It’s not hard to see that Sassoon’s story has personal resonance for Davies, whose early autobiographical films, such as Distant voices, still lifes (1988), detailed his own painful sense of not belonging. Davies admitted to being scarred by Catholicism and his own sexuality. He takes refuge in art – in cinema, music and literature. He understands the bitterness that grew on Sassoon as he grew older and more lonely.
A blessing is a blessing, but so much in Sassoon’s life could be considered a curse – from his harrowing memories of the trenches to the disgust he feels for himself and his friends. The blessing, however ironic, is the gift of clairvoyance, of poetic insight.
At the end of his life, Sassoon complained of a lack of recognition, as if fame could be his salvation. Instead, he appears to have been sentenced to immortality.
Writing & realized by Terence Davies
Featuring Jack Lowden, Calam Lynch, Tom Blyth, Jeremy Irvine, Geraldine James, Kate Phillips, Peter Capaldi, Gemma Jones, Ben Daniels, Matthew Tennyson, Richard Goulding, Simon Russell Beale, Anton Lesser
UK/USA, rated M, 137 minutes