Sentiments expressed by Vera Brittain when writing to her fiancée Roland Leighton in November 1915, still resonate today with millions of people around the world.
‘I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the war. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the war does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh…’
In her memoir 20th century acclaimed British writer and pacifist Vera Brittain (1893 – 1970) recounted her first hand experiences in both England and France working as a nurse during the 1914-1918 Great War in her now highly regarded classic work of literature; Testament of Youth
Considered one of the greatest and most powerful remembrances of the Great War of the early 20th century, the film Testament of Youth was, without having read this work or having much knowledge about the cast, a truly moving experience
It is showing as part of the Emirates British Film Festival 2014.
Vera Brittain’s book covered the first chapter of her adult life covering the years 1900 – 1925. During that time this young woman, whose personality is infused with extraordinary fortitude, lost a great deal.
Her brother Edward and his two best friends including her fiancée Roland and their best friend Victor, Vera’s three devoted handsome musketeers.
These were all young men on the verge of promising lives; young men whose presence were integral to Vera’s early adult life journey.
They had their hopes and dreams severed by the conflict.
With a commitment to detail and a finely balanced resistance to excess, Testament of Youth is a drama directed impressively by James Kent.
It is that sort of landmark work of film art that keeps on resonating in your mind long after you have left the cinema.
Kent balances and contrasts the tough tragedy of wartime with the aesthetic beauty of youth achieving this with a finely drawn but restrained sentimentalism that is admirable.
He reveals he has a fine eye and feeling for contrasting the atmospherically glorious qualities of an English Spring as opposed to the horrors of World War I fields of conflict.
The movie features a stellar cast of young actors, of whom we will undoubtedly hear very much more.
Young Swedish born Alicia Vikander is breathtaking as Vera Brittain.
Her luminosity lights up the screen as she contrasts iron like intensity with sweet and gentle sensitivity, sublimely making the transition from child to adult. She made my heart ache with the emotion of the moment and privilege at sharing Vera’s journey.
The scenes in the English countryside are filmed in a stunning choice of inspirational locations and among the extraordinary architectural masterpieces making up the main quadrangle area of Oxford University.
There is one magical scene of an English spring with surely the largest and most superb white covered blossom tree ever caught on film. It contrasts so violently with the scenes of the dreadful mud ridden trenches and waterlogged fields of France it takes your breath quite literally away. Add to that Alicia and her inner beauty and it is a scene hard to assimilate.
Vera Brittain gained her own heart rending perspective of life during wartime, one that drew away the veil of romanticism that had prevailed previously.
The movie admirably documents the England that existed during the Edwardian era where life in the countryside was comfortable and carefree.
This is a coming of age story of great importance, one with many parallels to our times with so many people suspending belief of the continuing disasters happening daily in the world around us.
Finely crafted by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, the script poignantly presents this woman’s viewpoint of war with no nonsense reality.
It balances romanticism perfectly with the grief ridden personal awakening experienced by Vera, which is accomplished with both grace and maturity.
She comes face to face with the hard cold reality of loss, of death, and the terrible traumas resulting from dreadful injuries and suffering.
It’s hard enough for anyone to lose one loved one, but three in such a short period of time would have been so terrible to bear.
She has to not only deal with it but also come out the other side with compassion, which is more than admirable. This young actress achieves this superbly, revealing a maturity well beyond her years.
The realistically filmed scenes of wooden huts on the front line full of wounded soldiers, some of whom have had legs or arms hacked off without anaesthetic are heart rendering.
They were tended to by an overworked small team of women nurses, whose skills with the scanty medicaments available, surely places them all in the realm of miracle workers
Vera’s strength, fortitude and ability to work through it all has a lot to do with her leaving Oxford university, giving up serving her own lifelong ambition. She wants to serve near to those she loves, on the front lines in an endeavour to understand what they are experiencing first hand.
It helps her to both know and to realise the futility of war and the failure of human communication.
Her own enlightenment truly begins when she and a few other British nurses are taking care of the enemy injured near their front lines.
Speaking in his own language she helps a young German, offering him care and comfort as he lies dying, not anger.
The youthful actors are working with a small team of British acting stalwarts, including Miranda Richardson, Anna Chancellor, Nicholas Farrell, Emily Watson and Dominic West.
Their roles are all completely defining for the four young main characters in the spotlight. This is a Testament of Youth.
As her brother Edward Brittain, whose dreams of being a composer and musician are put on hold, Tyron Egerton provides a sensitive well drawn very fine performance.
Vera Brittain’s biographer Alan Bishop wrote “As they grew up, tended by a governess and servants, in an environment of conservative middle-class values, close supervision, and comparative isolation, brother and sister formed a companionship that was to be a dominant force in Vera’s life.”
Edward is the anchor in Vera’s life. Having saved his life when he’s brought into the camp in France where she’s working, after nursing him back to health she is forced to wave him off to the front line once again, this time far away in Italy. She is hoping against hope he will be safe, however wishes do not always come true.
As his best friend Colin Morgan, whose promise as a teenage actor in the series Merlin on television marked him out as one to watch, fulfills everyone’s faith in his abilities as an actor.
This is not a large role, but one that is completely captivating. His unrequited love for Vera, while evident, doesn’t impact on his ability to help her to realise who she is as a person.
He’s a standout.
The very dashing and handsome heartthrob Kit Harington, whose role in Game of Thrones has no doubt garnered him a legion of followers already, will only add to his growing fan base.
He’s truly perfectly cast as Roland the man Vera loves with great passion; he’s a poet in both heart and mind.
Her brother Edward introduces Vera to Roland and when they first meet, he has just won his place to attend Oxford University.
He encourages Vera, who so desperately wants to go to university, to try the entrance exam. He supports her case that sees her father finally relenting opposition to train this very bright woman intellectually, when her prospects are marriage.
Vera recorded at the time in her diary that “he (Roland) seems even in a short acquaintance to share both my faults and my talents and my ideas in a way that I have never found anyone else to yet.”
She had found her soul mate.
Vera was the only daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer. Her family lived a comfortable life in the well-turned out divinely proportioned Georgian style Atherstone House at Newcastle under Lyme.
It looks picture perfect, like a tale from a princess’s diary, the family are all living the fairytale.
As teenagers Vera and her brother Edward pass their holidays swimming in the local picturesque pond nearby.
Vera’s mother (Emily Watson) passed her time gently during the elegant halcyon days of Edwardian life taking tea with symphony in the garden.
That is until the madness happened and her family left. She seeks to carry on as her husband wishes, but it’s now become difficult.
The point between the dichotomy of opposites existing during the conflict is made when Vera is called home from the front line to assist her mother, who has a breakdown and has been in hospital.
The message comes to the front line from her father that she must hurry home because her mother is in crisis. Leaving the war zone and other nurses short handed, she hastily dresses and takes the long journey.
She arrives home with the horrendous scene of France in wartime fresh in her mind, where after an offensive push as far as the eye can see dreadfully wounded soldiers have been laid out in rows on canvas stretchers on a muddy field waiting to be attended by the handful of doctors and nurses on hand.
In an immaculately turned out nurses uniform she hurries into her mother’s comfortable chintz and decorative arts laden living room where she finds her both confused and distressed.
It seems the cook and household help have quit and the house needs cleaning. Without any practical skills at all, her mother doesn’t know how to cope.
This one extraordinary scene certainly impacted on everyone at the session at the Palace Cinema Como in South Yarra that I attended.
There was a loud audible gasp around the packed room, as the point was succinctly made and hit home hard.
Vera doesn’t chastise, comment or judge her mother.
She resignedly rolls up her sleeves and goes to work, quietly accepting her mother’s failings, doing her best by giving her support too.
All her life Vera has watched her mother tend her garden and gather armfuls of roses and sweet Alice and bring them into the house to arrange them in glorious array and so she does that one simple thing too hoping to make her feel better.
She realises her mother doesn’t really understand the politics of the war in the first place, or why both her children need to be fighting and risking their lives in another place far away from their world, the one she thought they loved and wanted to be part of. For her its like her whole life has meant and come to nothing.
War is never a solution or a means to an end. It is a failure of us all to come to terms with who we are and what we are all about and our relationships to each other, especially in terms of democracy and ideals of real freedom.
I have seen some amazing movies this year and given them high ratings. However, for me Testament of Youth was without doubt one of the most moving exquisitely filmed, sensitively imagined heart rending dramatic movies yet seen.
The production is flawless, with masterly direction, sensitive scriptwriting, superb casting and acting performances, sensational cinematography, outstanding costume and set design. I couldn’t fault it. And, to top it all off this Testament of Youth pierced my soul.
The film’s importance in light of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of this dreadful conflict only serves to remind us no one ever really wins any war no matter what its ideology – lest we forget
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
Watch the Trailer Vera Brittain, letter to Roland Leighton – 7th November, 1915