Review by Emmet O’Cuana
Film| Testament of Youth| M
Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, the first of a series of lengthy memoirs, is a classic appeal to pacifism inspired by the horrors of the First World War. Having already inspired a BBC television miniseries in 1979, this is a stately and respectful cinematic adaptation.
Alicia Vikander stars as Brittain, first introduced wandering the streets of London in a daze on Armistice Day in 1918. While people cheer and celebrate the cessastion of hostilities, Brittain walks into a church. There, among a scattering of women in black mourning the deaths of loved ones overseas, she finds herself starring at a painting of The Deluge.
The symbolism is writ large and effectively conveys the sense of enduring trauma from the conflict then known as The Great War.
Cutting from a fantasy of drowning to the more buccolic setting of country Derbyshire in 1914, Brittain’s idyllic, if intellectually frustrated, adolescence is sketched in. While her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) encourage young Vera to concentrate on finding a husband for fear of becoming a ‘bluestocking’ spinster, she dreams of studying in Oxford. Despite her comfortable middle-class existence, Vera has ambitions of becoming a writer and suffragette.
Meanwhile her brother Edward (Taron Egerton, Kingsman) is sent to university, joining his friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Kit Harington). Vera is furious at the prospect of spending her future tending house and entertaining guests on the piano. Edward intercedes on her behalf, convincing their father to allow her to sit the Oxford entrance exams. She then falls for the sensitive and quick-witted Roland, himself the son of a suffragette ‘bohemian’ Marie Connor Leighton and sensitive to her frustrations.
Just as a life of intellectual challenge and passion seems to be opening up for Vera, war is declared. Roland and Edward eagerly sign up to fight in France, sure the conflict will be over in a matter of months. For them the war is an opportunity to become men, a grand adventure. Vera and her parents are left behind to fret and worry, dreading the arrival of an unwanted telegram bringing news from the front.
Vera Brittain’s experience of loss and grieving during the war had a profound effect. Not only did she discover her voice as a writer through her autobiographical reflections, but the success and fame of Testament of Youth cemented her reputation as a figurehead of the pacifist movement in British politics.
Director James Kent does not shy from an exactness of detail, bringing to life the sedate parlours of English countryside manors, as well as the muck, grime and blood of a medical station behind the front line. Testament of Youth’s stylised cinematography neatly switches between intimate studies of the attractive cast in passionate embraces and a vision of the British Empire slipping uneasily out of the Edwardian era.
Credit is also due to Vikander, whose passionate performance enlivens the the occasionally dated feel of this historical drama. Taron Egerton also stands out; the two performers have an easy rapport as onscreen siblings. West and Watson are nicely understated as the parents tormented with worry, but desperately repressing their emotions.
Overall the film captures how Vera Brittain’s – and, by extension, middle-class Britain itself – privileged existence was sharply intruded upon by the catastrophic loss of life in the war. The early talk of duty and heroism is eventually countered by Vera’s dawning realisation of the wasteful cost of the conflict. The film also suggests that modern feminism can be traced back to the frustration of women left behind by fathers, brothers and lovers; women expected to remain silent in their grief.
Now, when modern conflicts is neatly insulated from middle-class life, with drone warfare only the latest iteration of this process, Brittain’s compassionate appeal to break the cycle of needless violence is more powerful than ever.