With WellBritish author Terence Davies makes a spiritual return to his first two short films, the very autobiographical, montage-rich Distant Voices, Still Lives, and The Long Day Closes. Strangely, his latest is a biofilm of someone else – someone who made his longest mark 25 years before Davies was even born, the poet Siegfried Sassoon.
The two men had no similar education. Sassoon was an aristocrat, even though he was cut off from the centuries-old Sassoon family fortune because his father married outside the Jewish faith. (Luckily for him there was money coming in from mom’s side.) Davies grew up the son of a violent drinker in a working class Catholic family with nine older siblings. And yet they share an artistic sensibility, a bone-deep nostalgia that soaks into a warm rage directed at the relentless march forward of time. Although Davies’ latest film, Quiet Passionwas also the biographer of a poet (with Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson), Well feels, in a strange way, like a completion of that original trilogy.
The film may seem, at first, to be a typical BBC production: rich British people in luxurious rooms. The first scene shows a young Siegfried (Jack Lowden) and his brother Hamo (Thom Ashley) participating in a performance of the modernist, angry Igor Stravinsky. Rite of Spring. Instead of the ballet, we cut to a collage of black and white WWI footage, then stylistically illuminated images of the boys leaving for war. Only Siegfried returns, but, perhaps as a tribute to the British stiff upper lip, there is little praise for his lost brother. Instead, Siegfried turns to letters and writes an indictment of the war and how he feels about Britain’s undeclared, imperialist intentions.
Wealthy family friends can lower the official response of a court martial to a trip to a Scottish sanatorium (not too miserable!), Where Siegfried is engaged in speech therapy and grants a penchant for “the love that does not dare to speak its name.” He has his first affair with another poet in an apartment (Wilfred Owen, played by Matthew Tennyson), who is later viewed as healthy enough to serve and, of course, is killed at the front.
The torment of war is represented by intermittent jokes, some of them “projected” in rooms (and to anachronistic music), and occasional flashes of half-remembered screams or shots. What gets more attention is the recitations of Sassoon’s words which, after the war, brought him enough celebrity that he entered the most sophisticated corners of London’s society.
Here the film takes a sharp left turn, as Sassoon’s life might seem, from the outside, to be a bowl of cherries. He is soon in the arms of famous songwriter-performer Ivor Novello, played by the absurdly handsome Jeremy Irvine, all punched lips and dark eyelashes. (We meet him as he serenades a living room with the annoying song “And Her Mother Came Too”A heart cry about a horned boy who can’t get what he wants. ) But Sassoon’s relationship with him (and others, including Calam Lynch as Stephen Tennant) is subdued with cruelty. Another lover (Tom Blyth as Glen Byam Shaw) views the sharp tongues and wounded egos as additional damage from “the shadowy life we lead.”
The top crust bombs (of which there are many) are certainly clever — Davies really can to write“But beneath the laughter is a source of pain.” In a society where homosexuality is not only unacceptable but illegal, separation and backlash seem to be expected. (Not that a date in 2022 is all rosy, but the implication here is that the broader culture would embarrass you for some kind of heartbreak.)
Quietly Well reasons that Sassoon self-sabotages as a way to sublimate his wartime trauma. The last shot of the film – a single shot in which Lowden’s face melts due to an emotional overload while his wartime poem is being read aloud – is one of the more gigantic pieces of cinematic punctuation in recent memory.
But little else is so explicit. This is a movie where an awful lot is unsaid. There is no mention of Sassoon’s Jewish heritage (or of his famous family — yes, Vidal Sassoon is on the same tree) and references to the flying zeitgeist. If you don’t know who Bosie is, well, that’s up to you.
At some point along the way, Sassoon marries. At first it looks like it might be a nice arrangement, but it quickly turns sour. Through cuts back and forth in time, Sassoon is played as an older, more angry man by Peter Capaldi, who converts to Catholicism, longing for stability, but remains a terrible figure, disinterested in healing old obligations, and screaming about how pop- music of the early 1960s is vulgar. The film is booked with another trip to the theater. It’s not the fire Rite Of Springbut the curious, light musical Stop The World — I Want To Get Out. Sassoon decides to take a long walk home in the cold afterwards, set on a culture that doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself.
There is nothing in this film that is edifying, but Davies’ use of the material is so delicate that the predominant melancholy becomes, after all, a work of poetry.