Testament of Youth (QFT 16-29 January) – powerful on-screen adaptation of Vera Brittain’s extraordinary WW1 memoir

Most war films focus on the lives of those who join up, concentrating on the action at the front. Yet many more people are left behind at home than enter the military.

testament-of-youth four friendsTestament Of Youth quite brilliantly captures the life of Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander), an intelligent and boundary-pushing young woman who in 1914 dreamt of becoming a writer and fought with her father (Dominic West) in their rural middle-class Buxton home to be allowed to sit the Oxford Common Entrance Exam. By 1918 she was struggling to cope with the grief and gaping void left in her heart by the loss of so many close friends and family in the First World War.

This independent film is based on a memoir by Vera Brittain which recounts her wartime experiences. Until Monday night I’d never heard of Vera Brittain or her renowned book. Why given their fascination with Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est did no English teacher at school point us to her work?

While Vera went up to Somerville College in Oxford, her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Roland (Kit Harington) joined up. Another friend Victor (played by Northern Ireland actor Colin Morgan) had poor eyesight which hindered his military ambitions.

testament-of-youth nurse veraFor Vera, the early nineteen hundreds became a world of chaperones, poetry, and hopes that the war would be over before the new recruits’ training completed. Corresponding with her brother and the dashing Roland – whose mother (Anna Chancellor) was a great role model as a suffragette-supporting writer – Vera reached a point where she could no longer stand back while her friends fought and she postponed her studies to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, first in England and later behind the bloody battlelines in France.

Testament of Youth is not sentimental or jingoistic. It doesn’t hide death or suffering. It doesn’t disguise the masks that young men wore when they returned from the front with inner selves destroyed. At key moments in the film the dialogue simply stops and instead the deportment of the characters set against the often rugged scenery amply portrays the emotion and moves the story on.

Eventually assigned to tend to captured Germans – or “filthy Huns” as other British medical staff caustically referred to them – Vera’s language abilities allowed her to comfort the dying. Witnessing the impact on all sides of the conflict as well as families at home, Vera turned towards pacifism. (Is this why her 1933 memoir is ignored by the establishment?)

Mothers, sisters, women: we send our men to war. I fought my father to allow my brother to go because we all think it is the right thing, the honourable thing. But I ask you, is it?

A young talented cast portray young people whose potential was tragically cut short by WW1. At times, the cumulative loss made Testament of Youth almost unbearable to watch. More than a day later I’m still haunted by the sound of an off-screen father breaking down at the bad news contained in a telegram.

Why was I ever disappointed you weren’t a boy?

testament of youth roland veraTestament Of Youth isn’t perfect. The nods towards the build-up to the war are delivered via none-to-subtle newspaper headlines referring to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The screenplay sometimes contrives overly dramatic moments and rather too conveniently brings Vera and brother Edward back together at a crucial point. And I doubt 1914 make-up was so waterproof that coming out of a swim in a lake it would still be flawlessly applied. But these blemishes shrivel away against the formidable and persuasive account of love and loss, conflict and remembrance.

Courtesy of the BFI, Testament of Youth was previewed at 300 independent cinemas across the UK on Monday evening, and was followed by a satellite Q&A with director James Kent, producer Rosie Alison, actress Alicia Vikander and Vera Brittain’s daughter (who turns out to be Baroness Shirley Williams).

The young Swedish lead explained that it is “so rare to find strong female roles in films today”. Shirley Williams supported the film and spoke about her mother’s “commitment to bringing about reconciliation and the end to war”.

Testament of Youth runs in the Queens Film Theatre from Friday 16 until Thursday 29 January. It is a superb film and you should plan to go and see it. Bring tissues! It’s a great example of independent cinema, free of the shackles of big studios and backed by a patchwork of bodies and funders.

Given my ignorance of history, this is usefully the first part of a series of film screenings and events that the QFT will be hosting in its Conversations about Cinema: Impact of Conflict strand exploring the repercussions of conflict and the many ways this has been presented in film. Keep an eye on the QFT website for more details when the programme is announced.

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  • Tim Page

    Well, that’s one to go see then. Thanks Alan.

  • feismother

    I remember the great television version with Cheryl Campbell in the late seventies and I enjoyed reading all the memoirs. However my daughters couldn’t abide them and didn’t take to her at all. I was never really sure why but perhaps I’d feel the same if I read them now.

  • tmitch57

    I also remember watching it on Masterpiece Theater on PBS, which means that it was probably originally a BBC production. I think that it probably was not shown on American TV until the 1980s. But this was at a time when there was very little on WWI on television or at the movies.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks a lot, Alan. Another book of which the Owen-pushing English teachers never seemed to have heard was Evadne Price’s ‘Not so quiet on the Western front’. EP wrote the comic JANE books for children, but NSQOTWF is very serious stuff.