‘Testament of Youth’ A powerful memoir of British pacifist Vera Brittain
Testament of Youth (2014, UK) 4 stars
When I was much younger, I read “Testament of Youth,” the memoir of British pacifist Vera Brittain. I was one of those children – the kind who is always called upon in class and called names in the playground. I thought the book was fascinating and deeply emotional, and it has had a great influence on my own beliefs around the value and morality of war. People nowadays, so I’m told, don’t read books any more – it’s all films and TV-on-demand and short clips on the internet.
Nonetheless, the message of Brittain is just as timely as ever. War is awful. It is brutal, vile, and grim. It wrenches families apart and destroys lives irreprably, and it is all done because of politics (which are, to quote Brittain herself, “usually the executive expression of human immaturity”). This message is as relevant today as it ever has been, but since nobody these days is going to sit and read several hundred pages of largely turgid prose a film is the thing – and just in time for the Anzac Centennial.
Vera Brittain (played by the relatively unknown Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) is a young Edwardian woman determined to make her own way in a world that wants her to behave like a lady. Desperate to live by her own terms, she refuses to obey her father and marry a nice boy – and then promptly falls in love with one of her older brother’s school friends (who happens to be the poet Roland Leighton, played here by Kit Harrington). She insists on going to Oxford University – and when the First World War breaks out, she quickly leaves university to go the Front as a nurse, following her brother and boyfriend, to do her duty, to do her bit for King and Country. She returns home, having seen first-hand the futility of war and the horrid result of millions of people doing their bits for this King and that Country, and becomes convinced that peace and goodwill are always better than their ghastly alternatives.
Given that I had enjoyed Testament of Youth so much when I read the book, the film held some frustrating distractions. Vikander plays Brittain as some petulant thing who is always absolutely determined to do the exact opposite of whatever she is expected or asked to do, and who will sulk or throw a little tantrum if she doesn’t get her way. The real Brittain wasn’t nearly as melodramatic as all that – she was much more measured, thoughtful, and committed, and certainly more mature.
Kit Harrington’s turn as Roland Leighton is marred by his role in “Game of Thrones” – it is difficult to picture him as anything other than Jon Snow, and I spent much of the film half expecting him to broodily growl that winter was coming.
The biggest irritation though is director James Kent’s over-use of shallow focus shots at the beginning of any scene in which Vera Brittain walks towards another character. The first time he does this, it’s clear he’s trying to show that everything is being done from Vera’s point-of-view, and that it is her perception of the world that we should be concentrating on. This is reinforced the second time Kent does this, and the third. By the twentieth time, it’s just annoying.
Nonetheless, there are some things this film does well. It captures the confines and stuffiness of the Edwardian middle class perfectly (although, in parts, it does start to seem a little too Merchant-Ivory), and its scenes at the Front are gory, realistic, and gritty beyond all measure.
What it does the best though is to present exactly Vera Brittain’s position on war: that conflicts fought to please politicians or to soothe the wounded pride of kings are always unjustifiable and pointless, and that the pain felt by the mother of the dead English soldier is just as raw and endless as that of the mother of the dead German. It reminds us that behind every soldier’s brave façade is a frightened person who just wants to go home, and that every death in a war is a death that never needed to happen, and that every one of those dead people will be mourned in equal measure for generations. This film reminds us too that war invariably begets more war, and that at some point some valiant person needs to stand and say “enough, no more.”
Testament of Youth is opening in NZ cinemas on April 23.
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