Wednesday, January 14, 2015

At times unbearable, yet a truly unmissable film - Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain's war in QFT (16-29 Jan)

Over on Slugger I posted a review of a superb film Testament of Youth that is showing in the Queens Film Theatre between Friday 16 and Thursday 29 January. You should plan to go and see it. (Though bring tissues.)

Unlike most war films that focus on the lives of those who join up, Testament Of Youth's lead is the intelligent, boundary-pushing Vera Brittain (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) whose early dreams of becoming a writer were shattered by the chaos of World War One.

The film quite brilliantly captures her fighting with her father (Dominic West) in 1914 to be allowed to sit the Oxford Common Entrance Exam. By 1918 her life had been turned upside down and she was struggling to cope with the grief and gaping void left in her heart by the loss of so many close friends and family in the First World War.

This independent film is based on a memoir by Vera Brittain which recounts her wartime experiences. Until Monday night I’d never heard of Vera Brittain or her renowned book. Why given their fascination with Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est did no English teacher at school point us to her work?

While Vera went up to Somerville College in Oxford, her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Roland (Kit Harington) joined up. Another friend Victor (played by Northern Ireland actor Colin Morgan) had poor eyesight which hindered his military ambitions.

For Vera, the early nineteen hundreds became a world of chaperones, poetry, and hopes that the war would be over before the new recruits’ training completed. Corresponding with her brother and the dashing Roland – whose mother (Anna Chancellor) was a great role model as a suffragette-supporting writer – Vera reached a point where she could no longer stand back while her friends fought and she postponed her studies to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, first in England and later behind the bloody battlelines in France.

Eventually assigned to tend to captured Germans – or “filthy Huns” as other British medical staff caustically referred to them – Vera’s language abilities allowed her to comfort the dying. Witnessing the impact on all sides of the conflict as well as families at home, Vera turned towards pacifism. (Is this why her 1933 memoir is ignored by the establishment?)
Mothers, sisters, women: we send our men to war. I fought my father to allow my brother to go because we all think it is the right thing, the honourable thing. But I ask you, is it?
Testament of Youth is not sentimental or jingoistic. It doesn’t hide death or suffering. It doesn’t disguise the masks that young men wore when they returned from the front with inner selves destroyed. At key moments in the film the dialogue simply stops and instead the deportment of the characters set against the often rugged scenery amply portrays the emotion and moves the story on.

A young talented cast portray young people whose potential was tragically cut short by WW1. At times, the cumulative loss made Testament of Youth almost unbearable to watch. More than a day later I’m still haunted by the sound of an off-screen father breaking down at the bad news contained in a telegram.
Why was I ever disappointed you weren’t a boy?
Testament Of Youth isn’t perfect. The nods towards the build-up to the war are delivered via none-to-subtle newspaper headlines referring to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The screenplay sometimes contrives overly dramatic moments and rather too conveniently brings Vera and brother Edward back together at a crucial point. And I doubt 1914 make-up was so waterproof that coming out of a swim in a lake it would still be flawlessly applied. But these blemishes shrivel away against the formidable and persuasive account of love and loss, conflict and remembrance. And it's a great example of independent cinema, free of the shackles of big studios and backed by a patchwork of bodies and funders.

Given my ignorance of history, this is usefully the first part of a series of film screenings and events that the QFT will be hosting in its Conversations about Cinema: Impact of Conflict strand exploring the repercussions of conflict and the many ways this has been presented in film. Keep an eye on the QFT website for more details when the programme is announced.

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