Friday, November 13, 2015

movie review: Testament of Youth

In 1933,  English peace activist and novelist Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth, an autobiographical non-fiction book that made her famous. It is the story of a generation decimated by World War I.  In 1913, Vera, then twenty, wanted to attend Somerville College, a women's college at Oxford University, and was studying independently, hoping her parents would agree to let her take the admission test.  Shortly after she began her studies there, Britain declared war on Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany.Soon her brother Edward, her boyfriend Roland Leighton, and two other close friends from Edward's school were in the army, fighting in France.  During the course of the war, all four were killed. Vera left university to train as a nurse in order to be useful, and eventually was sent to work in the war zone in France.

This compelling story is still in print and has been the subject of two film adaptations, the first a BBC series (1979), the second the 2014 film starring Alicia Vikander as Vera and Kit Harington as Roland Leighton. Now on DVD, it is a coming-of-age story in which Vera leaves behind a confined, ladylike existence and becomes engaged in the great events of her era.

Near the beginning of the movie, we see Vera reacting badly to the piano her parents buy her for her birthday. It cost the equivalent of a year at Somerville College and it symbolizes for her the domestic, ladylike life her parents want for her. They don't want her to become a "bluestocking", but to find a husband.   She throws the books that she has been studying out the window and confronts her parents, Edward and his school chum, Victor, declaring that she will never marry. Just then a handsome young man comes through the open door. He is another of Edward's school friends and he hears her loud remark,and commets. "That's clear, then!"

During the course of his visit (he is Roland) they get to know each other well. They share an interest in literature and poetry; both plan to become writers. Roland's mother is a well-known writer and supports the women's suffrage movement, so Roland is no stranger to independent women.  Together they vow, "No more fear!" Edward convinces his father that he should let Vera go to university and she and Roland look forward to seeing each other there every day.

But in the meantime, after an idyllic summer, war is declared and the young men feel it a duty to sign up, especially as they believe they will beat the Germans by Christmas. Vera's father, who seems to be prescient about the long bloody conflict ahead, forbids Edward to join up, until Vera says that he has to let Edward be a man.

Vera's nursing instructors give her a hard time because they think she will put on airs and not work hard. She throws herself into her work, caring for young men like her brother and his friends, and urges Roland in her letters not to try to spare her feelings but to write to her the realities of war, as she is not afraid to confront things that are real.  Their relationship has its ups and downs. When they managed to spend time together prior to the war, they are heavily and comically chaperoned by her aunt.  When Vera sees him off to France he is ill. On his first leave he is angry and uncommunicative with her, convinced that she can't understand what he goes through in trench warfare and also sure that "leave makes you soft." Someone he knew went home on leave, got engaged, then came back to the trenches and forgot to keep his head down. 

In a dramatic confrontation by the sea Vera demands that he talk to her and make her understand. When he tells her the story about the engaged man who forgot to keep his head down and was picked off by the enemy, she assures him that they don't have to get engaged or married. At that, he says that a wedding might be nice - she in a white dress, surrounded by their friends, having cake. She accepts his proposal to be married on his Christmas leave. He writes later that he has been posted behind the lines and will be out of danger.

But Roland was sent to the front and was shot while mending wire. Vera doubts the official story about a noble, painless death because she knows he spent anentire day in hospital before dying. She ferrets out the true story, but, in a letter to their friend, Victor, who is just being sent to France, she  repeats the official line about a painless death.

Roland Leighton's personal effects included poems addressed to Vera. Two of them, "Violets" and "Hedcuville, November 1915". the latter written the month before he died, are quoted in the movie and available on the internet if you search under his name.  Both are heartrending. In the latter, he tells Vera that in the beautiful natural setting where they first met, she may meet "another stranger" and that it would be "better so". His resignation to his fate is deeply upsetting.

One of the terrible ironies is that, as a nurse in France, Vera finds her brother among the wounded brought to a field hospital, and saves his life, only to have him go back into the war and ultimately die.

The film takes some minor liberties with facts. In 1925, Vera married George Catlin, a political scientist, war veteran and peace activist, but she did not know him during the war years. The movie has them meet twice during its time frame.  It also shows Vera meeting Winnifred Holtby, a fellow Somerville student and writer who became her close friend until Holtby died in 1935. The film has Winnifred caring for Vera when she collapses from post traumatic stress disorder, but, in fact, that happened later in the early 1930s when Vera had to relive her wartime experiences while writing Testament of Youth.  But these small inaccuracies are necessary to give viewers a hint of what happened to Vera after the time frame of the movie. and they do not detract from its power.  I happened to see it just after Remembrance Day.

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