12 January 2015
Testament of Youth, a new British film based on Vera Brittain’s celebrated WWI memoir, is deeply felt and well-intentioned, but too tasteful to make much impact.
Last year’s centenary of the start of World War I inspired a rush of commemorative exhibitions, art installations and revivals of classic war texts. The most recent of these is the new film Testament of Youth, a dramatisation of Vera Brittain’s celebrated memoir of the same name. The film provides a strongly feminine and feminist perspective on what’s otherwise an overwhelmingly male commemoration. Better still, it provides a fresh wave of publicity for Brittain’s book, introducing her remarkable story to a new generation of readers.
Brittain was born into a wealthy middle-class family in the late 1890s, and came of age just as the War broke out. The memoir, published in 1933, was an instant classic hailed as the voice of a generation and a precise and resonant account of life during wartime. Brittain’s life is recounted as a series of struggles that are inherently cinematic. Born into a prosperous middle class family in Derbyshire, she resisted the limitations of her class and gender and fought her parents for the right to go to university. She won a place at Oxford just as the war broke out, then gave up her place to become a nurse, working in London and later at the front in France, where she nursed Allied and German soldiers. She experienced horrific loss (spoiler alert), as her fiancé, her brother and her friend were all killed in battle. Traumatised and enraged by her experiences, she became a journalist and writer and one of the most articulate pacifists of her time.
Testament of Youth is, admittedly, not the easiest of reads. Brittain’s prose style is formal and convoluted, harking back to the Victorian era writers who informed her teenage reading and education, and must have seemed old fashioned even in the 1930s. Her writing has little of the buoyancy and humour of her contemporary Virginia Woolf, though she shares with Woolf a steely intelligence and a journalist’s eye for detail. As a narrator, she’s never less than captivating. She writes with an authority born of bitter experience and a firm conviction in her right to tell her own story. It’s a sobering but satisfying read, that works both as a record of personal experience and a portrait of a society experiencing profound and irrevocable change.
Brittain spent the best part of a decade trying to write a novel about her experiences, before realising that memoir would be a more powerful form. The long gestation period gave her some critical distance from the events of her youht, allowing her to place her story within a wider social and historical context. Though she grew to hate the privations and mass destruction of war, she acknowledges the liberating influence that the War had on the lives of women. Before war breaks out, she’s living at home with her parents, playing the piano, unable to travel by herself or be in the company of men without a chaperone. Within three years she’s living in south London, earning her living, walking through London streets at night on her own and taking herself off to the theatre. It’s a hard-won freedom, to be sure, but Brittain captures the exhilaration as well as the fear of a cosseted generation suddenly set adrift.
Brittain died in 1970, just as her work was being rediscovered by the second wave of feminism and a new generation of anti-war campaigners. A BBC television adaptation in the late 1970s put Testament of Youth back on the bestsellers’ lists again. It’s pleasing now that, nearly 40 years later, she’s being rediscovered again.
The BBC’s new film, helmed by television director James Kent, is a respectful, handsomely produced slice of old school British Heritage movie making. It’s unashamedly old-fashioned and sentimental, with nods to the work of David Lean and Richard Attenborough. It also put me in mind of classic melodramas like Nurse Edith Cavell and Carve Her Name With Pride, in which courageous Englishwomen showed grace under fire and fought off the enemy without ever smudging their lipstick.
The film unfolds elegantly and efficiently like a well-oiled machine. There are glorious country houses, puffing steam trains at ornately decorated Victorian railway stations, intricate Edwardian-era costumes and set decorations, and several marvellous hats. There are postcard perfect shots of the old colleges and pristine lawns of Oxford University, filmed in golden summer sunshine. There are pretty boys aplenty, with floppy side-parted hair, puppydog eyes and plump biteable lower lips that tremble as they’re being sent off to the front. English stoicism and stiff upper lippery is celebrated, and tears are rationed like bags of sugar, while all the repressed emotion spills over into a sweeping orchestral soundtrack.
The only curiousity in an otherwise predictable production is the casting of the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Brittain. Vikander is stunningly beautiful, with long lustrous hair, huge brown eyes and the kind of bone structure that, like her predecessor Garbo, the camera translates into inner strength. Before seeing the film, I was skeptical that a non-English actress could pull off the strangulated vowels and emotional constipation required to play the flinty and somewhat snobbish Brittain. To her credit, Vikander pulls off a faultless RP accent and, in the earlier scenes anyway, conveys something of the inner strength of a young feminist rebel.
As the War progresses and the amputated bodies in the hospital huts pile up, Vikander suffers exquisitely, shedding her composure as her heart and consciousness opens. It’s a brave, emotionally transparent performance, that gives appropriate weight to the horrors Brittain experiences. Unfortunately, Vikander is constrained by the prettifying aesthetics of the filmmaking, that insists on everything looking beautiful. When she cries, it’s a single droplet rolling down one cheek, thoughfully backlit by the lighting designer so that it glistens like a diamond. As she argues with her shellshocked fiance Roland, the camera pulls back so we can admire the perfect vista of the Devon coast. Even amidst the muddy hell of the trench hospital, she still looks ready for a photo shoot in a Lancome commercial. The boys in the trench don’t fare much better either, as cinematographer manages to turn rain dripping from a barbed wire fence into a Kodak moment.
The effect is a film that is well-acted and respectfully intentioned towards its heroine, but which falls well short of the devastating impact it wants to achieve. The filmmakers are, no doubt quite properly, thinking of the international sales appeal of the film, which means more pretty English Heritage shots and nice frocks and fewer bleeding stumps and gibbering incomprehension. As charmed as I was by Testament of Youth, it felt like a war document from another era, and indicative of an England that even Brittain herself acknowledged was a romantic fiction. Older audiences will no doubt be relieved to go and see a film with handsome production values and none of the shock tactics and violent gore of modern cinema. That said, a film about war that fails to engage a visceral response must be viewed on some level as a failure.
While there’s sorrow aplenty in this film, and beautifully photographed regret for the loss of life, there’s little of the palpable anger that drove much of Brittain’s writing and politics. Late in the film, Vikander has a scene where she speaks at a public debate and advances her pacifist beliefs for the first time. It’s a stirring moment, but I never quite managed to believe that this woman would go on to be a committed public speaker and writer. I longed for the final scene to be of Vera dipping her pen into an inkwell and beginning work on what would one day become Testament of Youth. Sadly, shots of people writing in darkened rooms don’t hold an audience’s interest. Instead we see Vikander swimming alone in a lake, recalling a much happier scene from the start of the movie. The baptism/rebirth/ritual cleansing metaphor is resonant without being overstated, but it doesn’t feel quite enough. Testament of Youth is a film about a young woman who suffered and experienced great loss. What a shame it couldn’t have made room for what Brittain did with that grief, and how her efforts eventually did change a generation.
Despite my reservations, I hope that audiences of all ages go and see Testament of Youth. Brittain’s story is an extraordinary one, and her life was an example of the everyday heroism of millions of women during wartime. And those hats really are spectacular.