out of Five
Running time: 109
This Benjamin Britten docu-drama is successful in its elucidation of the composer’s music style and personal politics, but the tone fluctuates far too often and some of the actors aren’t quite up to scratch.
What’s it all about?
Written and directed by Tony Britten (no relation to Benjamin) and narrated by John Hurt, Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict is a drama documentary about the legendary British composer. Beginning in 1929 at Gresham’s School in Norfolk, where Britten boarded, the film explores Benjamin’s early life, to reveal how his school and upbringing shaped his hatred for militarism and how pacifism influenced his career as a professional composer.
Released to mark the centenary of Benjamin’s birth year, Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict also looks at Benjamin’s close relationship with his life and work partner, Peter Pears, with whom he spent three years working in America before they returned to England, where they both were granted non-combatant status and where they lived until Britten’s death in 1976.
Viewers with not much prior knowledge about Benjamin Britten’s work and personal life will likely come away feeling as if they’ve learnt something, thanks to the film’s detailed portrait of the classical composer’s musical style and personal politics. Unsurprisingly, Britten’s music sits at the heart with live performances accompanying the narrative throughout and this works well, ably communicating Benjamin’s music style and the observations from contributors (which include composers, musicians and teachers at Gresham’s School) provide some revelatory insights. Alex Lawther as Benjamin himself is also well-cast, thanks to his endearing performance and credible resemblance to the late composer.
There are so many different tones to this partially dramatised documentary that its fluctuating mood can make it a little challenging to stick with. Switching between the dramatised scenes, contributor interviews and performances all too often and quickly, Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict is not as engaging as it needs to be to ensure non-fans of Britten flock to see it. Tony Britten’s script also has its fair share of faults with a few cringe-worthy lines cropping up during the dramatised scenes which are then delivered by a handful of teen actors that aren’t really up to scratch. Finally, as much as it pains to say, John Hurt’s voiceover can be a little irritating at times.
Thanks to its inconsistent tone and flawed script, Benjamin Britten: Peace and Conflict is really only worth seeing if you’re already a fan of the classical composer. Otherwise, you’re better off watching something with a bit more flair.