On Monday 12 January 2015, the British Film Institute (BFI) hosted a special screening of the critically acclaimed Testament of Youth, by director James Kent and producer Rosie Alison, based on Vera Brittain’s poignant and powerful memoir of the same name, about the cataclysmic effect of the First World War on her generation. In addition to the screening on the Southbank, the film was screened in around 400 specially selected cinemas nationwide, all joined together via a satellite link for a pre-film introduction and post-film Q&A with the director and producer as well as actress Alicia Vikander (who played Vera Brittain) and Vera Brittain’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams. Following the film, the question session was open to the audience at the Southbank as well as audiences in all of the participating cinemas via Twitter. The two standout questions in my view, both directed to Vikaner, were: ‘what was it like playing such a strong female character as Vera Brittain’ and ‘what was your favourite scene in the film’?
Vera Brittain was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme on 29 December 1893. She enjoyed a privileged if somewhat sheltered childhood typical of a comfortable middle-class family in late-Victorian and early-Edwardian England. Her teenage years were divided between St Monica’s, a boarding school at Kingswood in Surrey, and the family home at Buxton in Derbyshire. During this time she displayed some rather challenging and wilful character traits, which led many who came to know her to label her a ‘rebel’. Vera rejected the preordained life-plan of ‘provincial young-ladyhood’ preferring instead a future that included a university education followed by a career as a writer. Battling against parental and societal expectations as well as the prejudice and regulations that made life choices and success in any field more difficult for a woman, she succeeded in winning a scholarship to read English Literature at Somerville College, Oxford. During the spring of 1914 she also began an intoxicating romance with Roland Leighton, a school friend of her beloved younger brother Edward. Vera spent much of the summer of 1914 enjoying life in Buxton: sharing picnics with Edward and Roland and Victor Richardson, another friend of her brother; playing bridge, golf and tennis; and preparing to go up to Oxford at the end of September for Michaelmas Term. She and her young male friends paid little attention to the news of assassinations in Sarajevo and escalating tensions throughout Europe as the Great Powers lurched closer and closer to war. When war did break out at the beginning of August, Vera viewed it ‘not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans’. (p.17) Little did she know then just how completely the war would shatter her dreams, devour those closest to her, and change her outlook on life and the world forever.
Vera Brittain went up to Oxford in the autumn of 1914 but her brother Edward, Roland and Victor, forwent university and enlisted in the army. The war called out to Vera too and in the summer of 1915 she suspended her studies in order to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. She served in London, France, Malta, and back in London again until the end of the war. In 1919 she returned to Somerville to complete her studies but read History instead of English. She was determined ‘to understand how the whole calamity had happened’ and why she and her contemporaries ‘through our own ignorance and others’ ingenuity, had been used, hypnotised, and slaughtered’ (p.471) in a monstrous war that had failed to change anything. She had begun already to suspect that she and her generation ‘had been deceived, its young courage cynically exploited, its idealism betrayed’, and when the Versailles Treaty was published in May 1919, she was certain she was right—it did not ‘represent at all the kind of “victory” that the young men whom I have loved would have regarded as sufficient justification for their lost lives’. (p.470)
Testament of Youth is one of the most powerful war memoirs ever written. Baroness Williams believes this is because it illustrates so clearly the terrible irony of the war: ‘the idealism and high-mindedness that led boys and men in their hundreds of thousands to volunteer to fight and, often, to die; the obscenity of the square miles of mud, barbed wire, broken trees and shattered bodies into which they were flung, battalion after battalion; and the total imbalance between the causes for which the war was fought on both sides, as against the scale of the human sacrifice’.(p.9)
Alicia Vikander said it was ‘an honour and a privilege’ to play Vera Brittain because of her courage and determination to make her own choices and to live her life the way she wanted in accordance with her own beliefs and convictions. The scene that Vikander said she enjoyed acting the most was when Vera was serving in a field hospital in France and had to care for wounded German soldiers. Surprising another British nurse who was tending to a dying German officer, Vera comforted him during his final minutes by speaking with him in German. This, for Vikander, demonstrated Vera Brittain had retained her humanity in a world that sadly had lost its way.
Testament of Youth can be seen at cinemas nationwide from Friday 16 January.
Quotations referenced in the text above are all taken from Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (London: Penguin Books, 2005).