Benediction explores the life of Siegfried Sassoon, played by Scots actor Jack Lowden, at a time when the fear of conflict is more immediate than ever.

BENEDICTION, director Terence Davies’ graceful, moving, biographical film, sees Jack Lowden take on the role of writer Siegfried Sassoon. Beginning in 1914, war provides the backdrop for a sweeping tale of loss, with the horrors of the battlefield replaced by internal conflict and anguish as the renowned poet wrestles with his own identity.

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Jack had joined the cast and was preparing for filming when it suddenly became clear this was not going to be the shoot anyone was expecting due to Covid. “I was watching it all unfold on my phone. We were three days from shooting in March 2020 when we were told we had to sit and wait, like everybody else.”

They finally got to film under pandemic protocols six month later in a tightly arranged schedule, reflecting the way Davies approaches a production.

“Terence was directing with a mask and visor on. You were being given instructions through what felt like a glass box” Jack says.

It was the fact the film appeared fully formed on the page that first drew Jack towards the project. “I was sent the script and I read it as a piece of writing that was so well thought out. It was like reading a play. It was a joy; one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.”

The elegant, sombre drama is interrupted by archive footage that underlines the brutal conditions of trench warfare during the First World War. Sassoon’s opposition to the slaughter, voiced through his poetry, made him a focal point of dissent while he was serving as an army officer.

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His impassioned anti-war verse marked him as an inconvenience to the establishment, ultimately leading to him being sidelined to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. The guilt of survival haunted him in his later life as a gay man, searching in vain for love, marooned in his own choices. 

Jack Lowden portrays the younger version of the character before morphing into Peter Capaldi, who brings an older version of Sassoon to life. The two Scottish actors didn’t have much opportunity to trade notes during filming.

“I didn’t meet Peter until towards the end of my time shooting on it,” Jack says. “I met him on a makeup truck, which was surreal, just from a fan point of view.

“He’s a hero of mine. I’ve grown up watching him in The Thick of It and now he’s going to play an older version of me. It was a great moment for me. Peter had found a recording of Sassoon reading some of his poetry so we talked about that.”

He describes the film as “forensically worked out”. What is it like for an actor when a director has a very distinct vision?

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“It’s a real comfort when you feel like you are in safe hands. You do have to alter the way you go about your work, where normally you would suggest things and push things forward. I had to learn very quickly to give in to Terence and the project,” Jack says.

“It was a completely different experience for me, but it’s really great when you’ve a director who knows what they want because the opposite is a nightmare.”

After a period of stasis, waiting for cinema audiences to return, Benediction finally gets a UK release on May 20. In preparation, Jack has been out on the film festival circuit at places like San Sebastian and Toronto before appearing at a gala screening during the Glasgow Film Festival.

This was familiar territory for Jack. The Glasgow Film Theatre is not far from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he graduated in 2011. He grew up in the Borders, where his parents still live, and when he lived in Scotland most recently it was in Leith – so not quite a homecoming but a chance to reminisce about student days.

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“I did love my time there. I always find it funny to go back to places where you were when younger. I start getting sentimental, remembering waiting in queues to get into bars on Bath Street or St Vincent Street.”

Jack lived in Scotland up until last year, when a job took him down to London. He is currently appearing in the spy thriller television series Slow Horses for Apple TV+.

“Whenever I get the chance to travel in Scotland. I go to Skye. I was there in the summer for my birthday and for New Year. I’ve an obsession with the place, the whole country, but the west coast in particular.

“Right now I’m at Glasgow Airport, waiting for a flight to Orkney because we are doing a recce up there for a film we’re putting together. The only thing I don’t do is live here anymore, but I’m just slowly working back towards Scotland.”

Jack has appeared in period pieces including ’71, Capone and Dunkirk and played historical figures like Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband Lord Darnley and pioneering Scottish golfer Tom Morris Jr. He says his habit of stepping into events and portraying real-life characters is more by accident than design.

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“I can’t get caught up in the idea of transformation. When I watch a film I’m like: That’s me in a pair of glasses. 

“For me, Benediction is about somebody who has this impression of himself and can’t commit to the full version of who he is. Someone who has his heart broken again and again, how much that made him what he was, a very hollow person, who went through the First World War, threat of a court-martial, almost being shot for cowardice.

“He also had all these lovers who, in his view, had left him a shell of a person. It’s about how life can take its toll on a person. It’s quite scary but comforting in the sense that he put that pain into his work. 

“I think, with what’s going on in Europe, the anti-war message in the film is incredibly important.

“The idea of quite a prominent person during the First World War putting his reputation and his life on the line and saying that war is idiocy.

“Before, I would have said, go see this film to get to know this incredibly brilliant man and his poetry but now I think it makes so much sense to have this film coming out at this moment because it is about standing against the lack of respect for human life. Sassoon was a real trailblazer in that respect.”