As the camera lyrically sweeps through a beautifully constructed diorama of Benn’s life, the patchwork of minutely detailed sets that paint the man’s successes and criticisms show us the trail of influence a single human being has left in their wake. Will and Testament’s central figure is evanescent, appearing to us only when we need him through the movie’s straightforward, biographical narrative, a kind of Obi-Wan who shows up in talking head form. It works wonders in building the mythology of Benn’s legacy, something that will only continue to grow in the years to come. But the restrictive A to B nature of the documentary clashes with its fantastic visual method; when particular sections of Benn’s life start to soar, such as when he becomes Chairman of the Labour Party, they get mired in the film’s restrictive chronology, the doc refusing to leave its rather tepid plane of existence for something approaching the same greatness of its subject.
The film’s greatest strength comes in its mounting; like a fine moleskin notebook, replete with gilded edges and fine leather, Will and Testament looks and feels terrific. It also never puts Benn on a pedestal; those beautiful, interchangeable sets which place Benn’s warm fireplace right next to the rubbish mountain of the Winter of Discontent are also adorned by a hanging garden of newspaper clippings – the headlines of which many are not all that aligned to Benn. This negativity is certainly explored, but never given any real credence to; the film, in Benn’s own words during its making, is a ‘premature obituary’. Sadly, the ‘premature’ part isn’t entirely true now, of course, but the ‘obituary’ part? Most true – this is a celebration of his life, articulately dissecting right-wing views against his own leftist leanings, but always with a focus on seeing how he made change for the good. And even though the focus is more on his political life than his personal one, nothing important feels missed; his life was politics, and he lacked no measure of genuine charisma or personality for it.
At the forefront of many historical surges in the UK, including being a major figure for the 1984 – 1985 Miners’ Strike, Benn made his way into the public consciousness whether he liked it or not. And being a prolific diarist himself, of which the film dips into now and then to illustrate the finer points of the man’s clear-eyed perspective on all things, we glean that he probably didn’t care. In socialist form that Orwell would have been proud of, Benn always tried to change history for the people, not for personal gain. However, it feels that Will and Testament, in its epic scope of charting the politician’s decade-spanning impact, skims too much without focusing enough on what made him tick. The good thing is that this particular documentary is only the first product from people who were influenced by him – this century will see many more odes for Benn.