Writer-Director Terence Davies on the making of Benediction

Within the British film industry Terence Davies – a veteran who is both screenwriter and director of Benediction – is widely regarded as one of our truly great film-makers, thanks to an extraordinary body of work that includes Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), The Long Day Closes (1992), The Neon Bible and The House of Mirth (both from 2000) and his remarkable documentary Of Time and The City (2008) – set in a working-class area of Liverpool, where he grew up.

“When I first said I’d make this film, which is six years ago now,” says Terence Davies, “I didn’t know that much about Siegfried Sassoon’s life. So I went out and bought three huge biographies of him. There was so much in them. It seemed he knew everybody – he was never in! So at first, it was difficult to know how to make the film, how to shape it.”

In 2015, Terence agreed to write and direct Benediction the film, and production company EMU Films came on board with Michael Elliott as a producer in April 2016, before they all began developing the project with the BFI.

“Originally we thought it would have wrapped in about a year. But the timescale turned out to be more than five years. Part of the problem was the complexity of Sassoon’s life and its various facets. Only when I started reading about his life did I realise what a huge subject it was. So how could I write it and make sense of it? All within a two hour film. There was so much to shape – and so much to lose.”

“I thought the best idea was to concentrate on those things that interested me. I didn’t know Sassoon was gay, nor that he had converted to Catholicism. Being an ex-Catholic, that was quite a shock for me. Then there was his constant search for some kind of redemption, which never comes because you can’t find redemption in anyone or anything. You have to find it in yourself. He did what lots of gay men did back then: they got married. I think he genuinely thought: ‘The love of a good woman could cure me.’”

Quite apart from all this, Sassoon made a name for himself both as a hero on the battlefield and as a fierce opponent of the war, appalled by the way it was being conducted. He was decorated for his bravery in the field (being awarded a Military Cross), but on his return home for convalescent leave in 1917 he wrote a furiously eloquent letter to his commanding officer about the suffering of British troops, refused to perform any more military duties while insisting the government’s continuation of the war was ‘being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.’ His words were read out in Parliament and reached the pages of the national press. As a result, although he escaped a court-martial he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland and was treated for ‘shell shock.’

Terence is thrilled by the young actors who appear in Benediction: “The wealth of talent among them, male and female, was quite breath-taking. And that’s thrilling.”

“Jack Lowden came on board at an early stage. He was really hugely supportive and stuck with the project for one and a half years while we were trying to get our finance sorted.”

The gratitude goes two ways: Calam Lynch remains delighted he got the chance to play the outrageous Stephen Tennant in Benediction: “It was such a privilege and for most of us the first job after lockdown, so the sense of joy was palpable. And to be able to say I’ve worked on a film with Terence Davies!

Benediction opens Friday 20 May at Storyhouse Cinema, book tickets now.