Film reviews: Benediction | The Innocents | Road Dance | Emergency

Based on the life of Siegfried Sassoon, and starring Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi, Benediction paints an unflinching portrait of a man who understands everything about himself except how to find peace, writes Alistair Harkness

Jack Lowden in Benediction
Jack Lowden in Benediction

Benediction (15) ****

The Innocents (15) ****

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The Road Dance (15) **

Emergency (15) ***

Like his Emily Dickinson biopic A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies’ latest film Benediction uses the life of a poet to take a withering, nostalgia-free journey into a past shaped by war. That past is Britain during and after the First World War and the poet is the gay writer Siegfried Sassoon, a decorated soldier turned prominent critic of the conflict.

Played as a young man by Jack Lowden and in old age by Peter Capaldi, Sassoon’s disdain for the trappings of convention can’t break him out of the life of regret he seems destined to fulfil, something Davies hints at early on by equating Sassoon’s inability to accept the horrors of war with his complex feelings about his own sexuality. He starts to confront the latter while consigned to a psychiatric hospital in Craiglockhart, Edinburgh, where he meets the soon-to-be-celebrated war poet Wilfred Owen, on whose life and short career Sassoon is to have a profound effect, but whose success, courage and death on the frontline are to eat away at him as he drifts through the post-war years, searching fruitlessly for happiness among the Bright Young Things who seem content to live the sort of frivolous, semi-open lives that he can’t allow himself to enjoy.

Lowden gets the lion’s share of the screen time here and Davies’ preference for tableaux-like compositions gives him plenty of space to tease out the self-loathing contained within Davies’ acidic script. But as the film jumps forward in time, the shock of Capaldi’s sour performance as an elderly Sassoon railing against a modern world adds to the ultimate tragedy of a man who understands everything about himself except how to find peace.

The Innocents

Despite sharing a title, Norwegian horror The Innocents isn’t a remake of the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw. It is, however, a similarly creepy and psychologically nuanced portrait of the traumas and terrors of adolescence, albeit one that also echoes Stephen King in the uncompromisingly dark way its pre-teen protagonists confront and deal with inexplicable powers.

Set on a Norwegian housing estate where seven-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her severely autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) have recently moved, the film initially grounds its more fantastical elements in their difficult relationship, with the younger Ida engaging in casual acts of cruelty against Anna as a way of venting her frustration at having to spend the summer holidays keeping an eye on her for her busy parents. Gradually, though, writer/director Eskil Vogt (Oscar-nominated recently for co-writing Joachim Trier’s Worst Person in the World) moves proceedings into the realm of the uncanny. Ida befriends fellow outsider Ben (Sam Ashraf), who appears have telekinetic powers, while the closed-off Anna forms a psychic bond with Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a kinder kid with a telepathic ability to feel what she feels.

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Vogt never falls into the trap of explaining these strange occurrences; instead he clues us into the specifics of each kid’s individual home life, diligently creating a visual language that captures the perspective of its young characters (all played by first timers, all excellent) while also hinting at something mysterious and sinister in the alienating, isolating nature of their high-rise apartment complex.

Set against the back-drop of the First World War, a potentially hard-hitting story about sexual assault on the Isle of Lewis is transformed into a soapy melodrama in The Road Dance. Adapted from John MacKay’s novel by American writer/director Richie Adams, the film opts for a weirdly twee view of the Hebrides, with sweeping drone shots of the coastline, an overbearing score and stilted dialogue delivering a quaintly nostalgic, tourist’s eye-view of island life that feels at odds with the trauma its central character, Kirsty (played by Hermione Corfield), has to endure after she’s knocked unconscious, raped and impregnated the night before the young men who swarm around her leave for the Western Front. Left to piece together the attack, and forced to keep her condition a secret, her ordeal feels diminished by the film’s old-fashioned approach, which seems intent on delivering a kind of drearily rendered mystery replete with red herrings and a spurious happy ending. Morven Christie and Mark Gatiss co-star.

Emergency PIC: Quantrell Colbert / Amazon

In Emergency a raucous campus comedy takes a serious detour into the precarious state of race relations in America as a pre-graduation blow-out for a trio of college friends is derailed by the discovery of a young drunk white girl passed out on the floor of their student house. Panicked at how it will look to the authorities if two Black students and their stoned Latino roommate call it in, the more worldly Sean (RJ Tyler) convinces his straight-laced best friend Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins) and the permanently baked Carlos (Sebastian Chacon) to get the girl’s unconscious body safely out of their house – a terrible decision that quickly escalates the seriousness of their predicament. As morally questionable and misguided as their actions are, though, they’re also fuelled by a very real fear that their own lives have been put in danger – a point director Carey Williams cleverly emphasises by using the structure of rites-of-passage movies like Superbad and Booksmart to examine how white privilege can impact on something as simple as trying to have a good time with your friends.

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Benediction and The Road Dance are on general release from 20 May; The Innocents is on selected release and digital demand from 20 May; Emergency is on selected release from 20 May and streams on Prime Video from 27 May.