Monday, 23 May 2022

Child's play: "The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin"

Squeezed between the multiverses and the mavericks, some bona fide, old-school summer counterprogramming. (Counterprogramming that would appear to be paying off, too, if the three-quarters full house I saw
The Quiet Girl with on its second weekend of release is anything to go by.) Adapted from Claire Keegan's 2010 novella Foster, Colm Bairéad's Gaelic-language drama is another of the cinema's becalmed miniatures about childhood: the films it immediately recalls are those of Victor Erice (The Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur) and Carla Simon's more recent Summer 1993, although it may ultimately be stealthier than any of those, creeping up on the unsuspecting viewer and only hitting us with the full, cumulative impact of its choices in the closing scenes. Summer 1981 might have been an alternative title. It's here we begin, with a deft sketch of an overstretched household in rural Ireland, observed from the POV of mournful pre-teen Cait (Catherine Clinch): dad (Michael Patric) an inveterate gambler and ladies' man, mother (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) pregnant and put-upon besides, multiple sisters and an infant brother's cries milling around in the gloomy middle distance. For at least half of its running time, The Quiet Girl is made up of what Cait sees but cannot yet understand: the narrow Academy frame, suddenly back in vogue, is here a perspectival choice. We're getting child-sized fragments of a bigger picture, glimpses of a sadness that extends beyond our field of vision.

The cause and extent of that sadness is brought into sharper focus when Cait is packed off to stay with a foster mother, Eibhlin (Carrie Crowley), and her gruffly agricultural hubby Sean (Andrew Bennett). Dad drops Cait at the couple's gates with no particular tenderness, tearing away in his crappy old banger without even troubling to unload the suitcase of possessions his child has packed in the boot. In the foster home scenes that follow, Bairéad works up an acute sense of what it is to be cared for - to be bathed and clothed and fed, to be included rather than overlooked or marginalised. (One especially lovely image: the solitary custard cream the farmer surreptitiously deposits on the breakfast table for his young charge, the kind of run-of-the-mill treat that would have been unthinkable in Cait's previous existence.) Yet nothing is ever laid on too thick; Bairéad has stripped back even that identical-twin trickery that was a feature of last year's broadly minimalist Petite Maman. His images remain frontal and steady, and while he pushes his soundtrack hard (work going on in the surrounding fields, families at war, a radio giving notice that even this respite must come to an end), part of the pleasure here is encountering a filmmaker who appears determined not to forcefeed or overcomplicate his frames, the better to centre the understated emotions in play, and connect with his audience. A major third-act incident, which would likely seem horribly contrived elsewhere, is instead insinuated through montage, becoming an almost Roeg-like matter of reawakened intuition; more generally, Bairéad adheres to the farmer's philosophy of keeping his trap shut and getting on with the job ("Many's the person who's missed an opportunity to say nothing, and lost much because of it"). The Quiet Girl's silences are resonant, and moving in the extreme.

The Quiet Girl/An Cailín Ciúin is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema.

On demand: "Pad Man"

Pad Man is two things at once: a social-issue masala movie about women's health - more specifically, the fight to provide affordable sanitary pads to those in rural areas - and a vehicle for Akshay Kumar in his new guise of Mr. Uxorious, The Housewives' Choice. Here, the star is playing a Hindified fictionalisation of the real-life Tamil entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, going by the name Lakshmikant Chauhan: a welder and tinkerer who, upon learning that his bride Gayatri (Radhika Apte) uses an old washcloth to soak up her monthlies (and the high price of sanitary products), sets out to tailor his own Lil-Lets. It's a dreamer narrative - one man going his own way in the face of widespread indifference and sometimes outright opposition - albeit predicated on a wholly humdrum, matter-of-fact, domestic dream; an account of an especially haphazard but ultimately successful R&D process - or as Lakshmikant dubs it, "T&F: Try and Fail". At least he's trying, which sets him apart from most husbands in his neck of the woods, and even his failures will carry him somewhere. I take some of the criticism about a film on feminine hygiene being so centred on a man (yes, this is based on a true story; yes, there were doubtless other stories that could have been told). But I also see the value in a film in which an established Bollywood action hero schools Indian men - men everywhere, indeed - to become more actively engaged in their partners' welfare. To quote Lakshmikant himself: "If you can't protect a woman, how can you call yourself a man?"

The one danger, from a dramatic point of view, is that Pad Man makes its hero such a sweetheart you can't ever imagine a jolly, 12A-rated crowdpleaser such as this ever letting him down with an unhappy ending. Good news, then: the director is the experienced R. Balki, who not only knows a feelgood story when he sees one, but also how to put one together. (By point of immediate contrast, check out last year's straight-to-VOD Helmet, a film conceived in Pad Man's image by mere kids, which tried to initiate a similar conversation about condom use but quickly fell apart, sniggering as it went.) Pad Man is that rare modern Hindi film that gets more satisfying as it goes along, which is probably one reason it became the runaway hit it did: you come away from it beaming, and keen to impress its virtues on others. Its depiction of a superstitious rural community - a place with one foot stuck firmly and stubbornly in the past - is irreverent but largely fond, never as mocking or condescending as it could have been. (Balki senses the audience he really has to reach.) Upfront, meanwhile, we get another demonstration of Bollywood star power, and Kumar proves rocksolid in a role that depends on his being dogged, humble, in many ways unheroic. A more subversively minded film might have made a big joke or talking point out of the scene where Lakshmikant dons pink panties to test the efficiency of his prototype; Balki is insistent that it comes with the job, just a pad man doing what a pad man has to do. Kumar gets one obvious "hero" moment - a long third-act speech at the United Nations - and he's so charming with his faltering English that you wonder why he's wasted the past two decades on substandard scripts and directors.

On either side of him, two women, representing two different Indias. There's a funny supporting role for Sonam Kapoor as the altogether elegant guinea pig for the Pad Man's prototype - funny, because pre-eminent brand ambassador Kapoor initially seems both amused and bemused at being called upon to promote a homemade sanitary towel. Her appearance in the second half is the point at which Pad Man actively starts pushing back against some of the anticipated criticism: if it still feels like a sop to the leading man's ego that her worldly character should eventually fall for this schlub, equally she has the best idea of what to do with the Pad Man's technology. (And we concede that invention is nothing without application.) Back on the homefront, Apte - typically cast as the modern metropolitan woman - is effectively yokelling down, swapping pantsuits for saris as a traditionalist who appears genuinely aggrieved and ashamed by her husband's interventions in the status quo. It's in the domestic scenes that Pad Man starts to up its stakes, in a way that marks it as a very savvy evening's entertainment: we're set to wondering whether this relationship can survive one man's determination to breach a taboo subject. Given the menstrual blood the New Extreme Cinema splashed around the screen at the turn of the century - thinking of you, Anatomy of Hell - it seems peculiar that some are still having to tiptoe around the subject two decades on. Yet that may just be where some squeamishly conservative part of India is still at this far into the 21st century; in that context, a gently radical, inherently likable proposition such as Pad Man - a film looking to nudge or nuzzle the needle in the right direction - has to be worth something.

Pad Man is available to stream via Netflix.

Friday, 20 May 2022

For what it's worth...

Top 10 films at the UK box office (for the weekend of May 13-15, 2022):

2 (2) Downton Abbey: A New Era (PG)
3 (new) Everything Everywhere All at Once (15)
4 (3) Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (PG)
5 (new) Little Mix Live - The Final Show (For Now...) (12A)
6 (4The Lost City (12A)
7 (6) The Bad Guys (U)
8 (5Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (12A)
9 (new) Firestarter (15)
10 (new) Sarkaru Vari Pata (12A)

(source: BFI)

My top five:
1. Vampyr [above]
5. Cabaret

DVD/Blu-Ray/Download top ten: 

1 (1) Uncharted (12)
2 (2) Sing 2 (U)
3 (3) Spider-Man: No Way Home (12) ***
4 (4) Dune: Part One (12) **
5 (26) Top Gun (12) ***
6 (9) The Matrix Resurrections (15)
7 (8) Belfast (12) **
8 (6) Turning Red (PG)
9 (11) Marry Me (12)
10 (15) Encanto (U) ***

My top five: 
1. The Souvenir: Part II
2. River
4. Cow

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:
1. Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool (Sunday, BBC2, 11.20pm)
2. Jason Bourne (Saturday, C4, 11.15pm)
3. 2 Fast 2 Furious (Friday, ITV, 11.40pm)
4. The Kid Who Would Be King (Sunday, C4, 2.10pm)
5. Whisky Galore! (Saturday, BBC2, 1.40pm)

In memoriam: Michel Bouquet (Telegraph 19/05/22)

Michel Bouquet, who has died aged 96, was a dedicated, much-laurelled French actor who took to the stage in post-War Paris, achieved movie fame in middle age as the New Wave dissipated, and completed his final film roles just last year. Mastering the theatrical canon as a youngster, he embodied the weak, compromised “modern man” in Claude Chabrol’s thriller
The Unfaithful Wife (1969); in later life, he lent his patrician bearing and sonorous voice to several notable figures in French history.

In Robert Guédiguian’s The Last Mitterrand (2005), a lightly fictionalised riff on actual events, Bouquet played the former French president, coaxed by a journalist into addressing his Vichy past. Bouquet’s rascally turn elevated a scholarly, slightly dry endeavour: Le Monde noted the way the actor “slipped into [Mitterrand’s] coat, put on his hat and, with astonishing charisma, composed a mischievous portrait… showing how a sacred monster could consume the soul of another.”

That Bouquet was unrecognisable from the octogenarian who returned to our screens, bearded and fierce of gaze, as the subject of Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir (2012), testament to the actor’s ability to disappear fully within the contours of a role. Nothing unduly dramatic happens in this absorbing, visually rich study of Pierre-Auguste Renoir in his Riviera dotage; Bourdos centred Bouquet’s finely-honed ability to hold an audience’s attention through craft alone.

Both in and out of the limelight, he was prone to self-effacement. He once described himself as “dull, banal, a little flat”, adding “the roles flesh me out.” As an aspiring thesp, he confessed to feeling too short (at 5’7”) for dramatic roles, and too serious-minded by nature to play comedy effectively.

In her memoir Le roman de ma vie, the actress Bernadette Lafont detailed how she once saw Bouquet explode at a script supervisor who’d claimed actors were overpaid, insisting “you have no idea what it means to carry the burden of a character who invades your life and haunts you even at night”. Bouquet later apologised, blaming the outburst on too much Burgundy. Nevertheless, he declared himself “too solitary for la vie de troupe”, maintaining that acting is “a very lonely job, just like painting. One does it in public, but the essence of it is secret”.

He was born Michel François Pierre Bouquet on November 6, 1925 in the 14th arrondissement of Paris, the youngest of four sons to winemaker Georges Bouquet and his milliner wife Marie. A WW1 veteran, Bouquet Sr. was a distant figure, quietly haunted by his wartime experiences. At seven, young Michel was dispatched to a Catholic boarding school for what he called “seven years of darkness and loneliness”.

He hoped to study medicine, but left school at 15 to support the family after Georges was held prisoner in Pomerania. During the Occupation, he worked in a bakery and a bank; following the Armistice, he juggled jobs as a warehouseman, dental technician and delivery driver.

Spurred by Marie’s love of the theatre, Michel signed up for acting classes, eventually studying at CNSAD, the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts. He made his stage debut within six months, impressing Albert Camus, who invited the 19-year-old to play Scipio in his 1945 production of Caligula.

Small film roles followed, as an assassin in Criminal Brigade (1947) and a TB patient in the Jean Anouilh-scripted Monsieur Vincent (1947), an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film. Yet the stage would be Bouquet’s primary home for the first twenty years of his career: excelling in Molière – despite those concerns about his comic chops – he also appeared in new work by Anouilh, Ionesco and Pinter.

An exceptional orator, he was hired to narrate Alain Resnais’ 32-minute Holocaust memorial Night and Fog (1955), from a script by Mauthausen survivor Jean Cayrol. But another decade passed before Chabrol thought to cast him, first in the undistinguished An Orchid for the Tiger (1965) and The Road to Corinth (1967). The Unfaithful Wife was the pair’s standout collaboration, in large part due to Bouquet’s psychologically shaded turn as a cuckolded husband-turned-murderer.

Thereafter, he became a familiar arthouse face, often in supporting roles: as the detective in Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid (1969), a Mob lawyer in Belmondo-Delon actioner Borsalino (1970), one of many oddbods in the Belgian curio Malpertuis (1971). On TV, he was Javert in Robert Hossain’s acclaimed Les Misérables (1982), Mozart’s father in Mozart (1982) and Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1984), for which he won the French equivalent of an Emmy.

The awards kept coming. He won a European Film Award for his role as the despairing older Toto in Toto the Hero (1991) and his first Molière award – French theatre’s highest accolade – at 73 for playing a rowdy pensioner in Bertrand Blier’s Les Côtelettes (1998). A second followed in 2005, for playing King Bérenger – a role he would play 800 times in total – in Ionesco’s Exit the King.

By the millennium, he was more in demand – and more revered – than ever. He won his first César – the French Oscar – as the father in Anne Fontaine’s melodrama How I Killed My Father (2001); he earned a second for playing Mitterrand, and was nominated for Renoir. He received the Legion d’Honneur in 2007, and the Grand-Croix in 2018.

A perfectionist, he stopped directing after his revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (co-directed with his first wife Ariane Borg) flopped in the 1950s. But he remained an influential teacher, penning multiple texts (and a memoir, Mémoire d’acteur, in 2001). His students included Fabrice Luchini, Anne Brochet and Maria de Medeiros.

He initially retired from the stage in 2011, but was drawn back by several choice roles, claiming at one point he was “never going to stop”. As late as 2018, it was announced that Bouquet would be appearing as Albert Einstein in Le cas Edouard Einstein, about the relationship between the scientist and his schizophrenic son. Yet tired by the preparations, he withdrew from the cast and made his retirement official, insisting “I had done everything I could”.

He is survived by his second wife, the actress Juliette Carré, who played Queen Marguerite to his King Bérenger in Exit the King.

Michel Bouquet, born November 6, 1925, died April 13, 2022.

Thursday, 19 May 2022

In memoriam: Fred Ward (Telegraph 18/05/22)

Fred Ward, who has died aged 79, was a dependable character actor who achieved familiarity, if not quite stardom, during the golden age of home video. Born of Scots Irish and Cherokee descent, he only found regular employment in his forties, after two decades of real-world slog, including spells as a cook, a lumberjack and a tomato picker. “My career has been a bit strange,” he admitted to one journalist. “I don’t think it took the normal route.”

Yet experience gave his work a grounded, lived-in quality to which audiences warmed. His specialty was grizzled, frowning, blue-collar types, men’s-men who peered at the modern world through sceptical eyes, but who invariably had the goods to save the day as the final credits neared.

Ironically, in his breakthrough role – Virgil “Gus” Grissom in Philip Kaufman’s stirring astronaut saga The Right Stuff (1983) – Ward was seen to come up short in the heroism stakes, which drew criticism from Grissom’s real-life NASA contemporaries. (Wally Schirra described the film’s Grissom as “a bungling sort of coward”.) Yet the crumpled machismo Ward evoked outside his spacesuit formed its own tribute to those left behind as the space-race heated up.

By complete contrast, there was Tremors (1990), a likable, enduring monster movie about a small Nevadan town (called Perfection) that finds itself undermined by giant killer worms. Kevin Bacon took top billing, but his joshing, affectionate relationship with Ward as fellow handyman Earl Bassett gave the film its heart. Upon learning of Ward’s passing, Bacon paid his co-star the fondest of farewells: “When it came to battling underground worms, I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”

He was born Freddie Joe Ward on December 30, 1942 in San Diego, California to Fred Frazier Ward and his wife Juanita (née Flemister). It was an itinerant childhood: after his mother’s death, the teenage Fred was sent to live with an aunt in New Orleans. He served in the Air Force, during which he boxed at amateur level – breaking his nose four times – and eventually had a revelation about the life he wanted to lead.

“I was going [out] with a stripper in San Antonio, hanging out with some bizarre fringe people who considered themselves ‘show people’, including this 250-pound transvestite who designed costumes for strip joints, and a few gangsters… They weren’t role models in a strict sense, more like the old freaks in the freak show. When I was younger, I always felt like an outsider, and they said it was all right to be ‘the other’. They had a nice little society, a little culture, and they dealt with life.”

He headed for New York, studying acting at the Herbert Berghof Studio, while supporting himself with janitorial and construction jobs. Six months later, Ward departed for Europe, drawn by the new opportunities available to American performers. In Rome, he dubbed spaghetti Westerns into English before landing minor roles in Roberto Rossellini’s miniseries The Age of the Medici (1973) and Cartesius (1974).

Upon returning to the US, Ward dabbled in experimental theatre before landing more typical work as a trucker in hitchhiking drama Ginger in the Morning (1974). One-off episodes of Quincy (in 1978) and The Incredible Hulk (in 1979) followed before his first significant role as John Anglin, one of Clint Eastwood’s fellow escapees in Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

He met a sticky end in Walter Hill’s taut Southern Comfort (1981) and was often cast in tough, meaty, dramatic roles: The Right Stuff, Silkwood (1983), Uncommon Valour (1983), a suavely brutish club owner in Swing Shift (1984). But several of his choices revealed a wry comic streak. Few fortysomethings would have committed as hard as Ward did to Timerider (1982), a genuine curio (co-written by Monkee Mike Nesmith) about a time-travelling biker.

He beat out the then-unknown Bruce Willis to land the title role in Remo: Unarmed and Dangerous (1985), the first of a planned trilogy of action films. But despite multiple magazine covers positioning Ward as a new, blue-collar James Bond and a memorable Statue of Liberty climax, the film nosedived commercially, recouping only $14m of its $40m budget.

Tremors steadied him, however, and two other 1990 parts demonstrated Ward’s range: careworn shamus Hoke Moseley in the blackly comic thriller Miami Blues and Henry Miller in Kaufman’s elegant period love triangle Henry & June, a role for which Ward shaved his head, adopted blue contact lenses and gamely watched Uma Thurman and Maria de Medeiros compete for his attentions.

One more notable lead role followed, as P.I. Harry Philip Lovecraft in made-for-cable horror-noir Cast a Deadly Spell (1991). Thereafter, Ward resumed supporting gigs, boosting the Robert Altman comeback (The Player, 1992; Short Cuts, 1994), threatening to blow up the Oscars (in Naked Gun 33, 1994), and even slotting between Brian Conley and Christopher Biggins (dire Britpic Circus, 2000).

He paused acting in the early Noughties, returning only for guest spots: on e.r. (2006-07) and True Detective (2015), as Ronald Reagan in retro potboiler Farewell (2009). Mostly, he devoted himself to painting, perhaps feeling the entertainment landscape shifting beneath his feet. His final credit remains unseen: a cameo in a Tremors spin-off, cancelled by the Syfy network before its 2017 pilot even aired.

In 1990, Ward was asked what he found most compelling about Henry Miller: “People are burdened by their futures, their jobs, their accumulating. Everyone says, ‘I wish I could do that, just take off, experiment with life’… [Miller] was 40 when he took that big leap. Most people are digging themselves deeper into their structures. He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, the creativity and the passion. Or he would die bitter."

He is survived by his third wife Marie-France Ward (née Boisselle) and a son, Django, by second wife Silvia Ward; his first marriage, to Carla Stewart, lasted a year.

Fred Ward, born December 30, 1942, died May 8, 2022.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

On demand: "Hope"

Norwegian writer-director Maria Sødahl'
s Hope starts out as Aspirational Scandie Lifestyle Drama 101. Middle-aged theatre director Anja (Andrea Bræin Hovig) returns from overseeing her latest professional success to spend the Christmas break in her gorgeously furnished home with her eminently photogenic family. Then Sødahl hits us with the bad news: having survived an earlier bout with lung cancer, Anja is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour, forcing her to rethink her entire approach to the holiday season and what remains of her life. Who to tell? When to tell them? The premise sounds vaultingly bleak, but the film starts to grip as something like a domestic procedural: an account of a woman navigating an already demanding period, and attempting to cling onto the resource locked into that title while simultaneously negotiating with the timebomb in her head. If that still sounds a hard-going, potentially punitive evening's viewing, then a) let me reassure you that it isn't, and b) consider the opening epigraph, which appears to serve as a director's note: "This is my story as I remember it." Maybe the heroine of a story such as this doesn't have to die. And maybe this is a spoiler - hopefully, an encouraging one - but you'd have to be a mean sonofabitch to call your film that if there was nothing to be hopeful about.

Granted, there's a level of privilege at play within this narrative, which - to her credit - Sødahl never thinks to hide. When Anja runs out of the kitchen to hide her upset from her family, she has a choice of three well-appointed bedrooms to escape into. (One set of bookshelves will likely have any bibliophiles firing up the roofrack and flooring it to their nearest IKEA.) But Hope also works in asides and observations that just wouldn't be in the literature typically handed to cancer patients. Look at Anja cramming her face with leftovers on Christmas morning: one advantage of knowing you may not have long for this world is that you no longer really have to watch your waistline. (Later, she will reveal that food is the only thing staving off the nausea caused by the steroids she's on.) Similarly, you may snort at the scene in which Anja tells the dentist's receptionist who keeps calling her in the midst of this crisis to delete her records, on the grounds "my teeth don't matter". Priorities shift. Much of the drama here has a lived-in, lived-through quality that goes some way beyond most afternoon TV movies on this subject. You see it most clearly in the depiction of Anja's cobbled together family, with its children and stepchildren, and Stellan Skarsgård on gruffly indifferent form as the type of bedmate some viewers won't be entirely certain they'd want to leave their offspring with. (I mean - jeez - one of them might grow up to star in The Northman.)

Because this is a Scandie drama, inevitably it has traces of Bergman in its DNA, stray muscle memories of Cries and Whispers, Fanny and Alexander and Scenes from a Marriage; and because this is a Scandie drama about theatre folk, Sødahl almost inevitably has to raise the spectre of infidelity, presented as one more thing for everyone on screen to be dealing with. But one of the miracles the film bears witness to is that Anja's plight touches something deep down inside Skarsgård's Tomas; if her condition remains in the balance right through to the film's closing seconds, we can at least be cheered - maybe even stirred - by the sight of a relationship coming back to life, either out of a fear of waking up alone or a sincere desire to right some previous wrongs. Sødahl makes canny use of Skarsgård's apparent impermeability: Tomas is weather-beaten and hard to crack, but that may also make him the kind of rock you need when every conversation you have is literally a matter of life and death. Still, there's no doubt he can be hard work. As Anja asks him, late in her hour of greatest need, "Did it take a death sentence for you to finally forget about yourself?" 

That's a good, incisive line - one of many in a generally unflinching screenplay - and yet another point where Bræin Hovig can be observed acing one of the year's most complicated acting assignments. Because Anja, finally, is a complicated woman, and it's only fleetingly clear how much that complication is inherent, how much is due to her situation, and how much is down to the medication. Scene by scene, Bræin Hovig gets the levels right. Heaven knows I've lamented the way the cinema has retreated from the real in recent times, and lambasted those filmmakers who've failed in their duty to come up with anything flesh-and-blood grown-ups can relate to on anything more than the most superficial level. A film like Hope arrives as a beacon, a genuine alternative, and an antidote to the 500 other movies released in the past twelve months that have had nothing whatsoever going on under their digital skin. Sødahl and her collaborators have done an exceptionally detailed and tender job with tough personal material - and my God, if you were unlucky enough to occasion a prognosis such as this, and felt up to the challenge, this would absolutely be a film to put on in your darkest hour. It really isn't called that for nothing.

Hope is currently available to rent via Prime Video, Curzon Home Cinema and YouTube, and on Blu-Ray via Picturehouse Entertainment.

Monday, 16 May 2022

Siegfried: "Benediction"

Since his overdue rediscovery with 2008's Of Time and the City, Terence Davies has busied himself with a run of long-nurtured literary passion projects. To 2011's The Deep Blue Sea (from Terence Rattigan), 2015's Sunset Song (from Lewis Grassic Gibbon) and 2016's A Quiet Passion (on Emily Dickinson), Davies now adds Benediction, his biopic of the War poet Siegfried Sassoon. Yet again, this filmmaker returns to the first half of the last century, on a quest to discover and describe what came before him to shape the Englishness on which he was raised. The danger, as ever, is stuffiness, but it transpires that Davies has good reason to revisit the past, and is prepared to make bold creative choices to carry us back there with him. The first of these has to do with authorial voice: he deploys Sassoon's own writings as a narrator, instantly lending his script an uncommon texture, richness and rhythm. The next is to do with time. This Sassoon (Jack Lowden) is dropped directly into the thick of the action: whisked off to the front within the film's opening ten minutes, he then has to argue his corner as a conscientious objector while wrestling internally with combat trauma and his own sexuality. We're just settling into this narrative when Davies throws us another curveball. To the accompaniment of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky", a song that couldn't be much less 1910s England if it tried, he cuts from this young Siegfried to Peter Capaldi as a bitter elder Sassoon, hiding out in early Fifties suburbia and making plans to convert to Catholicism. Rather than a conventional, linear biopic, then, Benediction falls closer to a diptych, showing us Siegfried Sassoon in two distinct phases. The timeshifts that occasion this may be unexpected from a generic point of view, but they're recognisably Daviesian in their aims. We know from an early stage that the film's subject will survive not just one but two World Wars; the question Benediction means to address is what spiritual shape that has left him in.

Davies remains a stickler, and that very precision provides its own source of fascination: you keep scanning the frame to check if he's got the details and faces right, and invariably he has. From the very top: Lowden has been knocking around the British cinema without ever quite generating the buzz surrounding some of his immediate contemporaries. (He was happy to play second fiddle to Florence Pugh in 2019's Fighting with My Family.) Yet Davies appears to have seen in him an actor from another age entirely. Lowden has the dimpled chin of a young Richard Burton, but he carries himself in a way that harks back further still, to the Ronald Colman era of matinee idols. This truly is a performance that's had all the 21st century knocked out of it. At the Highland army base to which this Sassoon is sent for rehabilitation, Davies installs pariahs of the British film industry, performers who've sometimes found it hard to fit in: Ben Daniels as the doctor who has a deeper sympathy for his patient than most, Julian Sands as the CMO who has no time for anything less than maximum manliness. The screen gradually fills with melancholy men, weighing up whether it's better or worse to be out of the trenches and what to do with themselves now; whether they're ever likely to make their peace with a world that's battered them so brutally. Benediction shares with Davies's earlier work an eye for figures caught in a suspension of some kind: it's not trying to fit in the life and works entire, the eternal pitfall of the movie biopic, rather feeling out particular moments, and the people with whom Sassoon may have shared those moments. The camera keeps moving, however: it's how Davies counters the detachment and passivity of his protagonist. What it alights on are pockets of life, the first stirrings of a new and liberated world.

For one, Davies presents the younger Siegfried with a brilliant (and brilliantined) false start in Ivor Novello, played by Jeremy Irvine as a cross between Jimmy Carr and the Associates' Billy Mackenzie, while funnelling his director's waspish wit. (On Edith Sitwell's receding gums: "She's so autocratic I'm surprised she gave them permission.") The scenes between these two men carry us further into the 20th century, towards a situation Davies may himself have had to navigate, or at least one the filmmaker recognises and understands: the attraction felt by a sensitive, emotionally reticent young man (as Siegfried confesses to his doc, he's no risktaker) for a voraciously polyamorous, devil-may-care contemporary. The contrast between the film's Sassoon and Novello starts with their words - one man's as sincere as rocks, the other as fanciful as balloons - and extends outwards to their deeds, Ivor living out and proud, Siegfried retreating into marriage with Hester Gatty (Kate Phillips, another whose features suggest Rank and Gainsborough before they do Film4) in a bid to meet polite society's expectations of him. (Gradually, those Fifties scenes, with the cranky Capaldi and Gemma Jones as the older Hester, start to come into clearer focus.)

Arguably, the emphasis placed on the poet's personal life means his professional accomplishments suffer a touch in the edit. (The narration counteracts that, to some degree, but we otherwise have to rely on sporadic walk-ons from Simon Russell Beale as the journalist and critic Robbie Ross to let us know how well the books are selling.) And it's clear that Davies, even now, is being allotted modest resources to play with, well away from the Crowns, Downtons and Bridgertons of this world. (Do producers still not trust him with the silverware?) We get but a sketch of Soho and a rather hemmed-in ballroom scene; there are limited numbers of battlefield casualties in the hospital and guests at the wedding. The closing credits indicate this was, at least in part, a lockdown production, which may well have had some impact on the scale of this shoot. Yet some of these limitations actually work in Benediction's favour: this is, after all, a story about a man in a self-made bubble - someone withdrawing from company, fearful of contact - and the prevailing tightness refocuses our gaze on bodies, faces, emotions. The result is small but intimate and absorbing: a period drama that, for once, you feel you really could reach out and hold in the palm of your hand.

Benediction opens in selected cinemas from Friday.