'Imagination will take you everywhere'
As the blood red sea of poppies gradually recedes from the Tower of London, the young spirits of World War 1 will be embodied through a new medium: film. James Kent’s first feature film, Testament of Youth, charts the memoir of a determined and free-spirited young woman, Vera Brittain, who fights prejudices to gain a place at Oxford University. But her life is shattered by the war; she loses her fiancé, best friend and brother. It is this lost youth which her book pays tribute to; pledging to remember their spirit, their character and their bravery. The film brings that lost generation to life – a timely and poignant depiction of the horrors of war – through the eyes of a woman.
A troop of young actors immortalise the characters in Brittain’s novel. Swedish actress, Alicia Vikander, takes on the title role of Vera Brittain. Kent knew Vikander was a talented up-coming actress, but he exclaims “I never thought she’d be this good.” While a delectable bevy of Brits take on the roles of the young men; a freshly shorn Kit Harington is Roland – looking less like Jon Snow and more like an aristocrat. Colin Morgan of Merlin fame plays Victor, and Edward is personified by Welsh newcomer, Taron Egerton – certainly an ascending star to watch out for. All of them encapsulate the men’s fresh optimism and enthusiasm for adventure and patriotism.
The film opens with a scene of chaotic celebration in the cobbled streets of Oxford on Armistice Day, November 1918. The happiness radiating from people’s faces does not resonate with Vera. She’s swarmed with memories of the war. And so begins a flashback documenting the tender beginnings of her brief yet heartfelt romance with Roland and its tragic ending.
“Vera lets agree: no more fear” says the charming Roland, as the chemistry crackles between them. Little does he realise how much significance that line holds. Poetry weaves through scenes of the four friends enjoying the last of summer in the country – blissfully unaware of the imposing danger. “Down along the long, wide road we walked together…There shone all April in your eyes.” Kent explains that he “wanted to make a highly emotional film. And poetry was a way to express themselves.” Most of Roland and Vera’s courtship was conducted via letter. In an age where words are mostly consumed via digital platforms, churned out of necessity rather than out of enjoyment, it’s a refreshing reminder of the power of poetry.
News of war hangs in the air – a foreboding cloak ready to wrap everyone in its all-encompassing embrace. Soon enough Roland, Edward and Victor are amongst the thousands of men going to fight on the frontline. The goodbye scene at the train station is heart-breaking; the ominous call of the whistle demanding the last farewells; women desperately embracing their loved ones – some for the last time. The brilliance of the acting and the power of Max Richter’s music made this scene one of the most moving – proved by the muffled sniffling emanating from almost every audience member in the theatre.
Vera pledges to do everything she can to help in the war; even giving up her “golden opportunity” at Oxford to volunteer as a nurse. A slow crane shot over a French field hospital is shocking in its revealing of hundreds of soldiers lying on the water-logged ground – homage to Gone with the Wind’s famous shot. Bodies lay everywhere; bloody, dismembered, some dead, some alive.
“All of us are surrounded by ghosts. Now we’ve got to learn to live with them.” Kent wanted it to be “a remembrance film for the dead. Not gory, but ghostly.” The lighting plays a key part in enhancing the melancholic, ethereal feel of the film. The majestic cinematography at the end creates a profoundly affecting scene which echoes the start: her swimming in the calm, translucent waters of the lake. But this time there is no laughter, no happiness, just stillness and emptiness.
Kent is a documentarian; he wanted the film to be truthful to Vera Brittain and to carry on her legacy, but not to distort the story. According to Kent, Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, absolutely loves the film and cried both times she saw it. Williams was worried about the ‘Hollywoodisation’ of the story, but she feels this film really is a testament to a bygone era. Indeed, Kent has made a subtly devastating film – its lack of over-the-top melodrama is a rarity in war films, which makes it all the more heartrending.
In a letter before he died, Edward urges Vera to remember the happy times with them “like a sun that will never set.” Brittain wrote to her brother “If the war spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four.” Her writing – and this film – makes sure that sun will never set. Not only does she encapsulate the pain, but also shows that despite everything she has been through, there is hope.
Vera Brittain didn’t break her promise to her brother; she wrote. And in doing so became a successful writer and leading pacifist. This film fulfils Vera’s wish; the boys live on through her words. She never forgot them, and now, neither will the rest of us.
“No to killing, no to war, no to the endless cycle of revenge. No more.” Vera Brittain.
Testament of Youth is released on 16th January 2015.