Female perspectives on the First World War are relatively few and of these Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is the most famous. Published in 1929 among a spate of disillusioned memoirs from former veterans, Brittain’s story is one of love, pitiable loss and an insight into a total war which also affected the millions of people left behind. One of the interesting criticisms from former Servicemen after the Armistice, is that the statues and memorials erected all over the country pandered primarily to a particular female grief – the wives, the mothers and daughters who have no grave to mourn over – and they felt little connection to a respectable form of public commemoration that felt so far from the war they had experienced.
Nonetheless Brittain’s memoir remains a gateway into the female experience and has been filmed on a number of occasions, but nowhere better than in this beautiful and emotional-affecting film by Juliette Towhidi, directed by James Kent. This is British film-making at its best, in some sense harking back to the glory days of Merchant Ivory productions and in the opening scenes particularly to A Room With A View. We see Vera in the midst of a tantrum because her father has brought her a piano –what a monster – and it is left to her brother Edward to calm her down. There is a lovely affection between them that is reminiscent of Lucy and Freddy in Forster’s tale, and their relationship, which feels very genuine, becomes one of the important pillars of the film as war begins.
Into this situation comes Roland Leighton and over the course of several days he and Vera begin to fall for one another. But it isn’t hurried and a fair amount of time is spent building up their connection, showing the dates where they humorously try to evade the maiden aunt chaperon and they’re unable to do more than hold hands for a moment. It is this restraint that is so lovely and, as war begins to encroach (shown only via newspaper columns and billboards), it gives more power to the Brief Encounter like train station departure when Roland leaves for war. You also get a sense of how young they are particularly as Edward, Roland and their friend Victor muck about in the fields near the Brittain home, a scene repeated as a memory a few times later in the film when war has forced them to grow-up very quickly.
Some reviewers have complained that the war scenes needed more visions of combat to give emotional heft to the film but I disagree. This is Vera’s memoir and it is about her war, so the focus on what she does is paramount and extremely well executed here. The images of the war we see link to descriptions in letters from Edward and Roland, and are actually all the more powerful for appearing amid domestic life and her early duties as a nurse. In one scene we hear a letter from Edward’s friend Geoffrey describing a peaceful moment at the front, where the sun reflected in the muddy pools of No Man’s Land leads Geoffrey to believe there is something bigger than the war, which gives him comfort. The scene is visualised for us and is a stunning image, like a Paul Nash painting, the ruined trees and craters given a golden tint that seems not only peaceful but hopeful.
Although seen through Vera’s eyes one of the big successes of this film is the male characters never seem deluded about war or in any way unwilling to fight it. It is rare for a film about this conflict to show men in this more nuanced way, making them seem like rational, intelligent people who made a choice that for all the horror they will stand by. This building of character and time spent at the beginning of the film to create proper investment in the various relationships makes the losses more potent when they come. Vera hears of Roland’s death on the very day she is dressed for their wedding, it’s painfully sad and Alicia Vikander is at her best as the bewildered Brittain alone on the beach starring into the sea – the decision not to include any crass ‘mood-music’ is a brilliant one and all you hear are the waves. The scene too when his family receive a parcel only to find the War Office has sent home his kit, covered in mud, is absolutely devastating and a real insight into the suffering at home.
In the last section of the film Vera goes to the Western Front to tend the wounded and it is here that the consequences of war are starkly seen, but I’ll leave you to find out what happens to everyone else she knows. At one point during a battle the camera pulls away from the ground leaving Vera standing among endless rows of harmed men on stretchers that gently nods to the white crosses of the cemeteries of France and Belgium. Testament of Youth is a great First World War film, full of excellent performances from the likes of Dominic West, as Vera’s father overcome by events, Colin Morgan as the forlorn Victor, and surprisingly Game of Thrones’s Kit Harington as Roland, displaying considerably more backbone and character than the wet John Snow (or Snore). But it is Vikander who dominates as a female voice on the experience and suffering of war. As the Armistice is declared and the British public crowd the streets in celebration, Vera makes her way through the crowd unable to share their joy and more aware than most of what it cost. A great film and a timely reminder.
Testament of Youth was shown at the London Film Festival and is due for general release on 16 January 2015.