22 May 2022
Jack Lowden, Peter Capaldi
If there is a time when poetry truly comes alive it’s during the carnage and mayhem of war. The rawness can be expressed so much more clearly in verse than ordinary prose. Siegfried Sassoon is one of the greatest poets to emerge from the Great War. This new film by Terence Davies explores a tempestuous life driven by the desire for acceptance and fulfilment.
The story picks up in 1914 when Sassoon (Jack Lowden) answers the call to arms. He is commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and serves on the Western Front. Sassoon wins the Military Cross but following a period of convalescence he reaches a momentous decision. Unable to cope with the war’s conduct he refuses a return to duty. Friend Robbie Ross (Simon Russell Beale) pulls the right strings and gets his court martial deferred. Declared unfit for duty Sassoon is sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital and treated for shell shock. He eventually returns to active duty but the emotional scars remain.
Sassoon’s post war years are littered with a series of disastrous relationships. A toxic affair with Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irving) is followed by a fling with socialite Stephen Tennant (Calam Lynch) but later bows to convention when he marries Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips). Sassoon is played in later life by Peter Capaldi as he converts to Catholicism in the quest for answers that make sense.
A rich source of material is betrayed by a film that is frequently dull and ponderous. It moves along at a snail’s pace with a fuzzy and confusing chronology. The first inkling we get the story has entered the 1920s is a couple dancing the Charleston. Similarly, the 1930s arrives only by reference to the Hitler Youth. Many of the characters portrayed invoke little in the way of sympathy. Sassoon is the only exception, who earns respect for his bravery and the stand taken on his comrades’ behalf. He was willing to meet his death by refusing to fight; but inhabits a world riddled by privilege and entitlement. The class system evidently spared him a worse fate as privates and non-commissioned officers would have been shot for taking similar action.
The film is saved by a stunning performance from Jack Lowden and the inclusion of black and white archive footage. The flickering images are set to recitals of Sassoon’s poetry which remind us why we are watching. Like so many of his fellow poets Sassoon was a spokesman for an entire generation. These brief interludes tell the story that really matters. Sassoon was a tortured soul who only found his true voice in poetry. An adequate snap shot that does too little justice to other aspects of Sassoon’s life.