Testament of Youth

“Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of you.”

Thus opens the first stanza of Vera Brittain’s ‘Perhaps‘: her 1919 poem in memory of her 20 year old fiancé, Roland Leighton, who had been killed by a German sniper some four years earlier in France during the Great War.

The woman who initially made her name with her autobiography ‘Testament of Youth’ in 1933, became an internationally respected writer, journalist and lecturer – dedicating most of her energy to the causes of peace and feminism. She went on to write twenty-nine books including novels, biography, poetry, autobiography, letter collections and other non-fiction, but it was ‘Testament of Youth’ which made her one of the best loved writers of her time.

Brittain’s book is a vivid and passionate personal record of the years 1900-1925 which conveys the essence of her generation’s experience of the Great War, and has been hailed as great a masterpiece – in spirit and impact – as other classics from the era including ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ and ‘Goodbye to All That’.

So what about this 2014 film of the same name directed by James Kent, produced by BBC Films, and starring Alicia Vikander in the title role? I’d been looking forward to seeing it since hearing that it was in production, and it was great to enjoy the convenience of watching it at the Beehive with a few friends from our Book Club.

Of course, it would be too much to expect the directors and scriptwriters to glean every nuance from a book that runs to nearly 320,000 words – so some allowances have to be made. Firstly, the time period of the film runs from mid 1914 to the Armistice in 1918. Secondly, and more importantly, the life and theme of the film revolves around the spirit of her 1919 poem rather than the social commentary of the book – and this it does extremely well. Because therein lies the power of the book’s narrative expressed so well by this film. There is a brooding sense throughout the film that the war is an immense engine in the face of which individuals are powerless; that great loss is inevitable and hovers over everyone’s head at the whim of fate; and that war is a dirty, brutal, destructive and pointless business with no meaning or redemptive qualities whatsoever.

Such effect is achieved by clever direction, great cinematography and production, and very good acting. And this is where the casting of Alicia Vikander is so impressive. It’s really hard to imagine a more accurate impression of Vera Brittain than this young actress provides. In the book Vera comes across as a precocious young bluestocking; earnest, sensitive and bookish, somewhat ‘modern’ (in the Edwardian ‘suffragetty’ sense) – but at the same time naive and not endowed with the greatest sense of humour. Vikander captures all this easily and complements it with her attractive, poetic dark looks because, yes, Vera Brittain was beautiful too.

There will probably be some who nitpick over the bits of this film that don’t exactly match the book. Yet, in one way at least, the film might be more honest than the social-mores of the time allowed the book to be –  in that there is a sensitive allusion to the likely homosexual nature of Edward, Vera’s beloved, gentle musician brother ably played by Taron Egerton. But the film doesn’t pretend to be a historical document  – and in any case, the project got the once-over from Shirley Williams, Vera Brittain’s daughter, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party and now Baroness Williams of Crosby – so that covers the provenance so far as I’m concerned.

Afterwards, in the bar of the Beehive, the Book Club were understandably a little subdued by the emotional impact of the film and sought liquid fortitude. ……….And as it’s 660 pages long we agreed not to add the book to our Club list until we were ALL retired. The film will have to suffice for the moment…..

Me? I honestly think everyone should see this film – particularly young people for whom it should serve as a timeless generational warning. It’s beautifully crafted at all levels and completely absorbing for any adult. More importantly it’s a worthy vessel for the propagation of the spirit of ‘Testament of Youth’; with its unvarnished truth about the pointless, non-redemptive evil of war and the consequences of giving credence to those who call for it.

Vera Brittain in 1916                                             Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain

vera1916                                 Alicia


Review by Neil Madden