What did young voices sound like in 1917 ? Before women were given their voting rights what did “head-strong” girls do ? Loyalty to their homelands and loyalty to their friends anchored them, but so did nature and love. The film “Testament Of Youth” is full of heartsong and birdsong. Director James Kent’s long,British period piece is also filled with the muck of war. Camera pans of field-loads of canvas-blanketed pallets, hundreds of glazed-eyed wounded, and a smattering of white-scarfed nurses set the scene.We hear the sounds of war while the screen remains black. Making her way through flag-waving citizens, the rosewood bereted Vera pushes through 1917 Armistice Day revelers. It is an engaging opening: a girl on the move. This is young woman of purpose. She enters a church sanctuary to give thanks,and we see other women fingering rosary beads. An art work of shipwrecked souls floundering in water has Vera floating backward to four years earlier. It is a lovely start.
There is nothing new or surprising in this film. The director James Kent does not give us the historical scope,but more of an intimate telling of war’s effects. We see a teasing brother,provincial parents,tantrums,tearful train goodbyes and notes slide under doors.
Emily Watson, playing Vera’s mother,wails that:”We have a suffragette on our hands”! You can tell she is proud of her. Her father is a pushover and easy to please.Vera’s parents are indulgent and financially privileged. They love their children,and do not stand in the way of their dreams. Circumstances of war do not change this.
The aftermath of any war decimates families and deals out grief. This film is a pacifist tract and a feminist treatise couched as a romance. Based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain,”Testament Of Youth” is a film that reminds the filmgoer that World War I was like all war: a destroyer. Especially, on a personal level we see a young woman lose a brother, a fiancée and for a while, her mind. Actress Alicia Vikander, the synthetic woman in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” (reviewed 4/29/15), portrays Vera. Vera is intelligent,rebellious, willful and easy to admire. Vikander does her justice in her passionate pleas for a try at Oxford, a chance to help on the Front, and peace in the World. One of Vikander’s most beautifully done scenes is when she is begging her fiancée Roland to not lose the best part of himself in the horrors of war. Vera is most of all perceptive. The scene reminds us how unprepared soldiers are for the psychological onslaughts of the battlefield and in returning from it.
“Testament Of Youth” meshes the provincial and privileged class with “Masterpiece Theater-like” sentiments that hold the viewers’emotions at bay. We are always aware that this is personal history. The events have already happened. Somehow this knowledge deadens the desired effect of any immediacy of tragedy.
Visually,the film is a stunner. Verdant estate walks,pooled and mossy retreats, coastal waters and silvered strands are all here. Juxtaposed against mildewed barracks and tented surgeries, the camera plays up the idyllic. This is a film for the romantic idealist. Poetry plays a major part. Nursing and self-sacrifice a close second. I particularly enjoyed the close-ups of clothes pins, and lace curtains airing, burnished-leather books and library tables. The “fallen in combat” list is movingly shot. World War I trenches with the barbed wire and rain-soaked misery visually confront the real. Images seem to overtake dialogue.Yet,the words spoken are memorable. When Vera apologizes for her “Masonic secret” jibe and for being “caught up with myself” in her angst over her Oxford entrance exam,Roland ( Kit Harrington ) responds with “I worked it out for myself.” To this our feminist precursor states,”And so will I!”
Always fully chaperoned,usually by Aunt Belle, Roland and Vera both wishing to become writers use poetry to awaken their emotions. Roland pens “errant hair had sunbeams in it/There shone all/April in your eyes”. Their romance begins.
Vera’s later pleadings of “I want to know the truth”, and “Talk to me or how can I understand.” leads to her volunteering for the Front. With thirty men to a hut,Vera nurses the enemy prisoners of war. She speaks German and comforts;she closes the dead’s eyes;she bandages her brother and sends him off again to battle. This is a long film.
Furloughed for three days, Roland, battle-fatigued, heartlessly pushes Vera to the sand. She stands and dramatically pleads as she touches her heart, “This part of you,don’t destroy it”. Roland’s “It might be gone already.” is the film’s saddest line, even sadder than “All of us are surrounded by ghosts. We need to learn to live with them.” Vera goes on to give rousting anti-war speeches, “No more the endless cycle of revenge”, I say, “No More”.
Emily Watson and Miranda Richardson,as mother and teacher respectively, play their types well. The four men in Vera’s early life, brother,father, fiancée and family friend highlight “coming of age” traits like impatience,dutifulness, and playfulness. The endnote tells us Vera later marries George Catlin, the pacifist,and they have two children. Could this mean a sequel is in the offing. I’ll no doubt see it,but maybe at home as the episodes roll by.