Toronto International Film Festival 2021 Review: Benediction

Written by Alexander Reams

98/100

Benediction: (noun) The utterance or bestowing of a blessing, especially at the end of a religious service.

The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24–26

Benedictions are almost always used in Christianity to signify the end of a worship service. The last words you hear before you go out to eat and forget everything, it is said in the hopes that these words will stick with you throughout the week until the next Sunday when you sit in your same seat and listen to another sermon. It is a constant throughout worship services in one form or another. Terence Davies’ study on the poet, soldier, and writer Siegfried Sassoon is not a typical biopic. Davies doesn’t care about informing you about the person, presenting a portrait of a man who could not be with the ones he loved, or could not find the right one to love instead, and how it affects him at different points in his life. In such, putting a benediction, or a look of hope, on Sassoon’s life.

The film begins with a reading of one of Sassoon’s poems, with archive footage of World War I in the background, providing us with his opinion on the war even before we see him on screen. Damning the war, and himself. Then Sassoon appears, not Capaldi, but Jack Lowden, who embodies this character in every frame he appears, every syllable he utters is perfect. As a Peter Capaldi fanboy, I was disappointed that his role is a glorified cameo, however that disappointment was replaced with fascination and heartbreak as Jack Lowden commands the screen in what hopefully will be his breakout role, he has been in high profile films before (Dunkirk and Mary, Queen of Scots). Never before though has he commanded such a quiet presence that riveted me throughout the runtime of the film.

It brings this writer great shame to admit that Davies is a filmmaker who I have never dived into, and after seeing his latest, I want to dive in more. His usage of Sassoon’s poems as a way to show vignettes of his life correlate brilliantly with the usage of archival footage to continually remind us that Sassoon, while he did serve, became disenfranchised with a war he saw as unnecessary and had the guts to speak out against one of the biggest empires on the planet. The film is a message of bravery while also a meditation on heartbreak.

Sassoon’s life was filled with heartbreak. After the war he had a string of lovers, however, the film only shows in detail, 2 of them. Both of them were clearly being destructive for Siegfried and I couldn’t help but feel heartbreak for him. He wants to be loved and he wants to give love, but in a time when 2 men could not love one another how they want. This love he has is one of pure truth. One that seeps throughout the film and nearly bursts through the final shot of the film. Utilizing Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis to show a simple moment but one that is the utmost profound in a film full of deeper meaning and how Sassoon was subjected to this disregard because of who he was as a person. This shot is reminiscent of Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and its use of Fantasia on a Theme is as heartbreaking as the use of Vivaldi’s Presto from “Summer” in his Four Seasons symphony.

Benediction is one of the finest films to come out this year, a meditative and personal reflection for Davies, while also breaking me emotionally to the point where I could not stop caring for Siegfried Sassoon and only wanted him to be happy in a time where he could not be. Whether due to his own personal drawbacks or the fact that being openly gay at this time in Britain was a criminal offense. I hope this film is widely seen, and that everyone who does see it comes away from it with some version of a message. I know I did, and I rarely take messages from films. Like its title, Benediction is a benediction on the life of Siegfried Sassoon, while also feeling like one for Terence Davies filmography.

Benediction was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Candyman (2021)

Written by Alexander Reams

93/100

Horror has been used frequently over the years as a metaphor for racial injustice. To even explain that much of horror is influenced by politics and a mirror on the current society should be unnecessary, but more often than not the message gets lost in translation. From the iconic Night of the Living Dead and The Craft to the more recent Get Out and The First Purge. This resurgence in showing racial injustice through horror has felt damning to society, and brought a breath of fresh air to the horror genre. In walks Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, which trades dialogue telling us why what’s happening is bad for wonderfully brutal, disturbing violence. However, before that disturbing violence, DaCosta treats us to a Shining-esque opening credits through an upside down Chicago, something that not only plays to the themes of the film, but simply looks gorgeous and increased my anticipation for the next 91 minutes to follow. 

DaCosta uses Bernard Rose’s 1992 classic eponymously titled film as a jumping off point while weaving in the injustice from our modern culture as the true villain. DaCosta’s film stands proudly on its own, introducing us to the story of Chicago artist Anthony McCoy (a brilliant Yahya Abdul- Mateen II) as he moves to the setting of Rose’s 1992 film, the Cabrini-Green housing projects, that have now been gentrified, something DaCosta never shies away from talking about and ultimately condemning. With Anthony comes his partner Brianna (Teyonah Parris, the unsung hero of Candyman), have moved into this mecca of gentrification, all while pointing out the irony of their residence. While Brianna is succeeding, Anthony seems to be falling behind everyone. Having created nothing in years until he hears a story about what used to stand where they lived. Anthony has a creative burst that Brianna initially sees as a fantastic thing for their relationship. Until the bodies start piling up. 

Well, not piling, more like a small bump. The violence and kills are not as frequent as in its 1992 predecessor, but hit harder with the way DaCosta places the camera and blocks each scene. Letting the brutality play out at times, and letting our imagination run at others. Oftentimes, at least for this writer, my imagination can think up so many worse scenarios than what plays out on screen, and when a director is smart enough to tap into that, the scenes have an even higher tension within them. Even still, bodies are starting to turn up, and all after Anthony brings attention to the ritual which can summon the candyman in his latest exhibit. With each kill, Anthony becomes more and more obsessed with Candyman, and one could understand why, myself included. The history is not only fascinating, but you want to know more just from reading it.

Nia DaCosta has crafted a modern horror masterpiece that has explicit tones of race, gentrification, and police brutality. Working through all of these themes with vicious, animalistic kills that are filmed like a work of art being created in front of us. I loved Candyman and I love Nia DaCosta even more now and cannot wait to see her next films, how she evolves and matures as a filmmaker, and how she brings these themes into each of her works.

Candyman (2021) Trailer

Candyman (2021) is currently in theatrical wide release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.