War poet’s survival guilt

Jack Lowden (right) stars as a young Siegfried Sassoon in Benediction.

It is a conventional view of history that World War I could have been prevented and its tragic legacy avoided. Apart from history-telling, it left a large trove of literature, notably Britain’s war poets. 

Few parents of baby boomers would have left New Zealand high schools without being able to recite some of the works by Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon. Similar groups of poets emerged in France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. 

They changed the way later generations viewed war from being about heroic deeds, military glory and inspired leadership. Instead, they emphasised how mechanised weapons, poisonous gases and mass slaughter were responsible for some 19 million deaths of young soldiers and innocent civilians. 

Of course, this did not prevent a further world war which had even larger and more tragic consequences. But this was fought in different circumstances and for justifiable reasons. 

British writer-director Terence Davies has produced a series of rare but carefully crafted movies, starting with Distant Voices, Still Lives in 1988. This, and an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s bleak The Deep Blue Sea (2011), were set during or just after World War II. 

He also compiled a documentary, Of Time and the City (2008), about the history and transformation of his birthplace, Liverpool, and The Long Day Closes (1992), about his childhood.  

Sunset Song (2015), based on Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novels, spans a Scottish woman’s life through the loss of her husband in World War I and beyond. 

The 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson was the subject of A Quiet Passion (2016). She was noted for her unconventional life of seclusion and most of her poetry wasn’t published until after her death.   

Sassoon, who unlike many of his contemporaries survived the war, is the main character in Benediction (Rialto), which is set in two periods of his life. The first is his wartime experience and hospitalisation in Scotland for “shell shock” to avoid a court martial for his anti-war views expressed in the 1917 Soldier’s Declaration. The hospital’s psychiatrist (Ben Daniels) is a closeted ally. 

The second period precedes his marriage to Hester Gatty and conversion to Catholicism some 30 years later. This is signalled in an early scene in a church where the young Sassoon (Jack Lowden) questions his later self (Peter Capaldi) about religion. 

The marriage is unsuccessful, as Davies introduces elements of his own life in growing up as a gay Catholic. By contrast, Sassoon’s wartime relationship with Wilfred Owen (Matthew Tennyson), who was killed in the war’s final week, is sympathetic and provides a platform for their poetic works.  

The post-war years show tempestuous affairs with the likes of Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine) in a society where being queer was common among the artists and writers of the time. Gatty, played by Kate Phillips and Gemma Jones, is faced with the impossible task of satisfying Sassoon’s need for redemption as a survivor, as is their exasperated son George (Richard Goulding). 

Rating: Mature audiences. 137 minutes. 


Don’t Worry Darling
(Warner Bros) 

For many people, being trapped in middle class oasis of 1950s America, with its idealisation of nuclear families and suburban living, would not be a bad thing. Flash cars, safe neighbourhoods and constant desert sun are a reality in places such as Palm Springs. But to Hollywood, this is a nightmare that houses evil doings. The Stepford Wives (2004) is the model and is updated here as a misogynistic corporate trap for freedom-loving feminists. Florence Pugh is familiar with entrapment (Lady Macbeth, Midsommar) and puts the heat on her executive husband (Harry Styles) when she sees a mysterious plane crash. She asks uncomfortable questions of the utopian community’s cult-like leader (Chris Pine), who preaches Jordan Peterson’s self-help philosophy rather than Gloriavale’s twisted Christianity. If restricted to a story about willing victims of mind control, and the costs of conformity, this would have had some originality. But its descent into The Handmaid’s Tale territory of repression removes credibility, leaving only its lavish visuals. Director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) is also in front of the camera as one of the wives. Katie Silberman’s script is based on a story by Carey and Shane Van Dyke. 

Rating: R13. 123 minutes. 

Decision to Leave
(Korean Film Festival) 

Korean director Park Chan-wook (The Handmaiden, The Little Drummer Girl) picked up the director’s prize at Cannes for this psychological crime thriller. It’s another story of a good cop falling for one of his suspects and making the kind of mistakes that happen when officers replace logic with emotion. It develops into a nifty piece of genre work, though heavily influenced by Korean references that will not resonate with foreign audiences. The detective’s marriage becomes a loose arrangement after he meets a suspect, played by China’s Tang Wei (Lust, Caution), whose series of husbands meet untimely ends. Her enigmatic allure is enhanced by her speaking more in Chinese than Korean. She draws the detective (Park Haeil) into a web that is the hallmark of noir setups that leave you guessing until the end. 

Rating: Mature audiences. 138 minutes  

Ticket to Paradise

Julia Roberts and George Clooney have been partners in crime on several occasions – Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and Ocean’s Twelve (2004), Confessions of a Dangerous Man (2002) and Money Monster (2016). Roberts’s stardom was launched by Pretty Woman (1990), a romantic drama, while Clooney still fits the bill as Hollywood’s leading man for the older generation. The attractions of Bali more than compensate for a weak plot in which they both try to foil their daughter’s desire to marry a local seaweed farmer. Played by the diminutive Arielle Carber-O’Neill, she is the only worthwhile fruit from a marriage that lasted just five years. The pace slows from their busy, combative lives in New York when they get to the island paradise for a traditional Balinese wedding. What follows is more a tourist advertisement than a believable romantic comedy in which both couples opt to renounce their former lifestyles. 

Rating: Mature audiences. 104 minutes. 



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Nevil Gibson

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