Vera Brittain – One woman, two world wars, twenty nine published books, one game-changing novel: ‘Testament of Youth’ and seventy seven years living in an oppressive male dominated world, and now one awe-inspiring film.
Premiering at London’s Odeon cinema in Leicester Square today (Thursday 16th October 2014) I could hear the entrenched sorrow escaping like a torrid whirlwind of spasms from several glue- to –the-screen, cemented-to-the-seat audience members as Vera’s beloved Roland returned on leave only to dismiss her. “I have to go back in three days,” he says mournfully whilst the audience, let alone Vera, want to embrace him in a shower of kisses and cuddles. Without wishing to give too many secrets away, luminosity and cyclical harmony restored in some undisclosed way Testament of Youth continuously finesses your senses, underlying aforementioned ‘soul tampering’ immediacy of what is a deeply tragic tale so close to so many.
Testament of Youth retells, in a dramatised version, Vera’s 1933 novel of the same title set just before, during the First World War – 1914-1918 – and the preceding seven years until 1925, in such a way as to clamber on top of any flailing misgivings and inertia one may possess about yet another cosily furnished period drama. Choosing instead to focus on the torment and devastation of the war itself and how this played out on Vera’s life and the lives of those around her. Together with its digressive tendencies towards underplaying the anger associated with such a great loss creating an intimate portrait, touching in its avoidance of direct engagement with the politics of the age, of a woman feeling every inch of pain told in just her two eyes and face that the men faced over the channel in the trenches. Director James Kent remarked on her eyes;
“… I could have extended the shot of her sifting through Ron’s uniform several times but her face told it all.”
“…there was so much going on we did not need anything other than her face in what I call cinema silence” James Kent finished off.
Producer Rosie Alison remarked on Alicia’s portrayal of Vera; “every pore of her face oozed with emotion.”
And what a beautiful face it is too. Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress, though not a trace of her dialect is traceable in her impeccably ‘English’ tones, catapults what is already a soul-tampering portrayal of this most inspirational of women facing the gut-wrenching horrors of a male war first-hand as a nurse on the front line, into a heart twisting jerker of a film.
Born in 1893, the young Vera was a part of a Victorianised English middle class. Headed for Sommerville College Oxford to read English literature – the returning line in the film when Vera resumes her studies plays, ‘Chaucer this term’ – she quickly found herself brought up smart by the unification of desolation caused by war. Displaying an almost fearsome resolve, some may say sense of bequeathed duty, having fought her father to allow her brother to enlist, Vera equally feels a desire for justice and equality of sacrifice promptly enlisting as a nurse. She notes in a letter to Roland “… they do not seem to understand. The more they try to break me the more I try.” Famously sent on despatch in France to tend to the maimed and injured ‘huns,’ Vera embraces her role with equal gusto and strength of character one may surmise was displayed by her brother and fiancé to fight them. She notably comes up trumps when faced with a dying soldier who, whilst crying out and waxing lyrical in pained German, “his blood is the same as our blood, his final words were to ask for forgiveness from his wife.” Vera later remarks whilst facing a barrage of angry men at a community gathering in what one guesses to be a village hall after the war has ended. Within her defiant proto-feminist resolve and through the onslaught of ‘challenges’ thrown at her, Vera’s inexhaustible sense of equality shines out of her like the blazing furnaces alighting the French coastline. Whether or not the adaptation to screen is faithful to Vera’s own memoir, sharing the same title: ‘Testament of Youth’, I cannot truthfully write. As I for one am yet to pick up the six hundred odd page capsule, or is this tombstone, of captured time, whether or not the film is as faithful to Vera’s own creation as it is exquisite in its storytelling. What I can write is how intrinsically respectful to the causes of equality and peace Vera strove so tirelessly to champion.
“We have to work harder, be better, otherwise our fight for the vote would be a wasted one.”
As a woman of words for many decades Vera has written proli, no, no I shall not escape down the greased slide of satire in such a gravely serious subject as war. Even if, as a semi-literate writer by comparison, it brings me untold joys to play with words, affectionately known as word play and, dare I write, objective persuasion. What I was trying to write was this: As a woman of words for many decades Vera has turned what is most notably a tormented youth on multiple levels, not least affected by the war, into her very own coup d’etat of Victorian England’s stuffiness. As she puts it herself:
“…to rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war.”
A life-long pacifist - encouraged by her wartime experiences - writer, journalist, prolific speaker, lecturer, Vera devoted the majority of her seventy seven years to feminism and peace. Writing prolifically, prolifically, have I already used this word? Yes. Multiple times. Well then, it is because this word is by far the most appropriate word to overlay the depth and breadth of Vera Brittain: Prolific.