The movie portrayal of Vera Brittain — feminist, pacifist and iconic Oxonian — lacks the courage of her convictions, writes Edward Elliott.
Reviewed by Edward Elliott
‘Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves — as I did that morning in Boulogne — to an end that they believed, and went on trying to believe, lofty and ideal.’ — Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
Come movie award season, ‘worthy’ is an almost inescapable term, and the British period drama has often been a prominent offender in the category of ‘important’ films about ‘important’ issues. It comes as no surprise that two exponents of knitted jumpers and 1950s BBC standard pronunciation, The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, head up this years Baftas, Golden Globes, and, of course, Oscars. But there is a third period drama, out this January, which thanks to its source material should prove the most ‘important’ and ‘worthy’ of them all.
Testament of Youth, the film adaptation of the first instalment of the groundbreaking autobiography of peace campaigner and feminist Vera Brittain, opens in cinemas this week. Directed by James Kent, creator of the BBC’s The White Queen, the film charts the activist’s early life in Buxton and her experiences during the war. Encountering obstacles to both education and romance, Vera begins to overcome the Edwardian inertia that holds her back. The greatest challenge, however, comes with the war, and the inescapable horror that changes her life and the century so dramatically.
All biopics strive to capture something of the human in the celebrated. In the post-film Q&A at the British Film Institute in London, Baroness Shirley Williams, daughter to Brittain and consultant to the project, described her hope that her mother be portrayed as ‘a full person . . . a true individual to herself’. At its best, Testament of Youth delivers this consummately. Fixed to her perspective, we see Vera’s struggles at home; we feel her struggles as a volunteer nurse on the Western Front; and we empathise with her continual trials in relationships. A full portrait of a young woman — a rare thing in film — is allowed to blossom, Vera’s perseverance amid immense catastrophe depicted with a sparing lightness and delicacy, mirrored in the beautifully crisp and clean cinematography.
With the choice of lightness and delicacy comes a certain tentativeness; as Kent himself noted, there was a concern not to ‘go too far’. The ugliness and brutality of war inevitably diminish as the ever-beautiful Alicia Vikander glides through the bodies and stretchers, make-up perfectly in place. The weight of female oppression and expectation similarly dilutes with the avuncular Dominic West as father and the bumbling Joanna Scanlan as chaperone.
This is the film Kent intended to make — as he reported, Testament of Youth was to him a more general fable of ‘dealing with life’s adversities’, rather than a hard tale of activism. Yet for all its insight, one cannot help but feel an opportunity has been missed, an immediacy lost.
Brittain is remembered for her passion and aspiration to change. Almost all connected to Testament of Youth expressed their hope to pass a legacy ‘to the next generation’ — as both Kent and Baroness Williams put it, to interest ‘young people for years to come’. In the film’s very structure, however, one cannot help but find a hollowness.
Rolling English countryside, pristine Edwardian costumes, dreams of Oxford (the movie Oxford composed solely of endless ornate stone buildings and nice young men and women in cricket jumpers) are attractive, but hardly radical. And the earnest reading of war poetry in public-school accents is unlikely to entice the modern teenager. In fact one suspects the movie makers had in mind an audience a little older, a little more nostalgic, a little more Downton.
James Kent fielded the last question of the BFI’s Q&A — ‘What do you hope this generation will take away from the film?’ — with a very similar quote to the Brittain one at the head of the current review. Young people should eye ‘the views of older people warily’ and not to ‘trust them . . . blindly’; they might ‘treat Vera as an icon and someone who can show them how.’
No one left in the cinema by that point was under 25.
A pillar of history, it is often easy to forget that Vera Brittain was once a young woman, politically radical and feminist, a polar opposite to the presiding ideas of the age. Her latter-day equivalents are unlikely to go and see Testament of Youth — and if they did, they would probably be frustrated by its timidity.
Images courtesy of Lionsgate UK Ltd.