Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) has teamed up with Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who) and filmmaker Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives, Of Time and the City) for Benediction, part of the 2021 Toronto International Festival (TIFF), which tells the story of the complex life of 20th-century English poet and soldier Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon, decorated for his bravery fighting in the First World War, became one of the leading war poets, drawing from his experiences on the Western Front, vocally horrified with what he saw.
Sassoon was adored by many for his poetry, particularly among England’s aristocracy, but was coming to terms with his sexuality, having affairs with men, and also, interestingly, converting to Catholicism.
“I had come across Sassoon’s work when I went for my interview at drama school,” Davies explained to Yahoo Canada “It was only when, about six years ago, I was asked, would I be interested in doing it, and then I read him properly."
“It is an amazing life. I mean, there's so much of it, the biographies are huge… But what emerged from it, for me anyway, is his journey about looking for redemption, and unfortunately, you can't find redemption in other people, or religion, it's just not there. You have to find it within yourself. So in that sense, he's unfulfilled.”
With Sassoon's extensive recorded history, the film’s director said there were certainly aspects of his life that he “did not want to touch,” for this particular story.
“I'm not a sporting man and I don't like cricket, and I don't like hunting,” Davies said. “I don't like blood sports and cricket is almost coma-inducing, it's so boring.”
Ultimately he had to ask himself: “What are the parts of his life that I can respond to?”
“I can respond to the fact that he's a great poet, because of the war, the fact that he was gay and a lot of gay men at that time married, and it wasn't a successful match and he treated his wife quite badly,” Davies explained.
“Then he became a Catholic, which was extraordinary, because I was brought up a Catholic and I think it's a really pernicious religion. So it was those things I focused on [because I felt] that I could do them.”
'Everybody says that they're trying not to regret anything'
There's no denying Lowden's expertly complex and emotional performance as the younger version of Sassoon, to Capaldi’s older version of the same character. But he revealed that Capaldi’s portrayal of Sassoon didn’t really impact his independent work in this story.
“To be honest, I'd quite often forget that there was going to be this older incarnation of him,” Lowden said. “It’s an interesting thought, because when you go through life you do think, ‘God what am I going to be like, in 20 years time?’”
“So it's quite nice to think, ‘I'll be like Peter Capaldi.’"
Lowden and Capaldi, two Scottish actors, did meet briefly for this project though, discussing the accent so they were both "roughly doing the same thing."
For the Lowden, ultimately it was the “regret” in the character that attracted him to the role of Sassoon.
“Regret and the way the script explored regret, in him seeking redemption,” Lowden said. “I find regret one of the saddest things that human beings can experience because it's often unseen, as well, and it's very, quite often, hard to articulate.”
“The script I just thought was one of the best things I've ever read that explored regret… Everybody says that they're trying not to regret anything, but I think that's almost impossible, and so it was his regret in his life and his constant feeling of not being enough or not what he wanted to be, that's really heartbreaking.”
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) runs until Sept. 18 with both in-person and digital screenings of films.