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Film: Benediction - a relative of Siegfried Sassoon comments

  • Sr Jessica Gatty

A relative of Siegfried Sassoon comments on a new film about him. Sr Jessica Gatty, an Assumption Sister, was his niece. He was married to Hester, her father's sister. He was also Sr Jessica's godfather.

The film `Benediction' , portraying the life of Siegfried Sassoon, is admirable in many ways. There is, however, one deep flaw which needs to be exposed; this is that failure and bitterness were not the end of his story, quite the opposite. It is a serious misrepresentation of the truth which Siegfried. looked for all his life. The redemption which he sought in many different ways and which he longed for, was found in the last decade of his life when he came home to Christ in the Catholic Church. He was transformed. I can witness to this, so I need to speak out.

I saw and knew him in his last years. It was from him that I caught a flame of faith as a young woman many years ago, and which has remained with me all my life. I have been an Assumption nun for coming up 50 years. It was an Assumption nun who, by writing to hm from her bed of sickness, opened the door to his conversion, and the profound peace and joy that pervaded his last years. The deep thanksgiving present within him towards the end was not present in the film. Indeed, the portrayal of his conversion in conversation with George his son, was rather grim. It spoke more of defiance and grovelling than of being received and absolved by a gentle mercy, opening him up to receive, in all humility` a faith that truly blessed his pilgrim path begun'. A Benediction indeed!

The film depicted very movingly how he was haunted by the memories of World War 1 with the senseless slaughter and shattering of young lives. William Halse Rivers, who treated victims of shell shock, was beautifully portrayed. The young Siegfried was very sensitively present throughout the film, though I missed the element of diffidence in the characterisation, which was part of his makeup.

The era between the wars (for some) comes over very well. Edith Sitwell was brilliant. The difficulties of a life of homosexuality are well documented and expressed. Could it be that this is of particular importance in the context of today when we look back on the lack of liberation of those times? I ask this as this theme took up much of the film. In my view his `below waist self' as he put it, his `imprisoned clay', was not the driving force of his life, even though it had its importance. His real vocation was to be a poet. His prose was written mainly in support of his poetry. I have to admit too, that I found some of the poetry chosen as part of the film rather curious. The spiritual visionary, the Jewish seer, who could write `It seemed I stood with youth on that calm verge/ of some annunciation that should bring/ with flocks of silver angels, ultimate Spring/ Whence all that life had longed for might emerge', was missing. In truth the authentic Siegfried is found best in his poetry.

`Look listen, live, some inward watcher warns/Absorb this moment's meaning: and be wise/ with hearts whom the first primrose purifies.' I missed too his penetrating love of creation, the whole natural world. There was a curious emphasis on Englishness without the love of the countryside and countryside pursuits, cricket, hunting which was so much part of his life, - the early dawns, the frosts, and the mud not only of the trenches in WW1 but also in the ditches and fields of the Shires. He was never the epitome of Englishness; he recognised his Jewish inheritance more and more as his life progressed.

There is a limit to what can be expressed within the short space of time. There was great artistry in this film. The young Siegfried on the bench at the end of the film was very moving. I don't know whether Vaughan Williams music which accompanied those last shots, was put there in the knowledge that the tune is also used as a hymn, `I heard the voice of Jesus say, `Come to me and rest'….. or whether it was fortuitous. Whichever, it was very beautiful, and perhaps could be interpreted as the closure of his` purgatorial time'. But there was very much more to his interior journey and that was missing in the film.

We went together as a community to see the film. A sister who remembers him added the following comment, "I was sad that the film ended with an image of an old man who appeared bitter and frustrated whereas my memory is of someone well on in years whose demeanour conveyed peace, courtesy, gentleness and a touch of humour."

Written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Terence Davies, the biopic explores the turbulent life of WWI poet Siegfried Sassoon, played by Jack Lowden.

Benediction opened in UK cinemas on 3 June 2022. Watch official trailer here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHPcubS9XbM

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