3 Stars – Powerful
The acclaimed autobiographical journey of Vera Brittain and her experience of the First World War is documented in her book Testament of Youth. Bringing this story to the big screen after having previously created a TV series, BBC Films chose James Kent to direct and Juliette Towhidi to write the adapted screenplay. Staying very true to the original book, they only give us a taste of Brittain’s work. Along with many other books, this work eventually became a trilogy including Testament of Friendship and Testament of Experience. Brittain was writing a fourth book, Testament of Faith, but was unable to finish it before her death.
A remarkable young woman who was tutored at home and passed the entrance exam to study at Somerville College in Oxford, Vera (Alicia Vikander) was the only daughter of a wealthy paper manufacturer Thomas (Dominic West) and his wife Edith (Emily Watson). A quiet and driven person whose beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) was her best friend, Vera’s plans to attend Oxford and become a writer were reinforced when she fell in love with a dashing young Oxford-bound poet named Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). Her brother Edward and good friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) were also enrolled to study with her in the colleges of Oxford University.
But before their first day of college together arrived, World War I began. Lured by both the adventure and idealism of youth, Roland, Edward and Victor all enlisted. Although Vera started attending college at Oxford by herself, she soon left to volunteer to help the injured troops as a nursing assistant. Clearly, the war changed everything for this group of teenagers. Although Vera’s father tried desperately to keep his son from going to war, Vera pleaded on his behalf to get his father’s permission. Her role in Edward’s going to war would be something that haunted her and influenced her later opinions and thoughts about war and pacifism.
Although this is a true story and the facts are known, we will not spoil the film for those who aren’t acquainted with Vera’s book or life. However, several moral and social issues permeate the film. Known as one of the most effective pacifists following the war, Vera was nevertheless what is often called a practical pacifist. She had the ability to express her commitment to end war from the perspective of having experienced the depth of its horror. She also understood the violent evil that plagues humanity, especially as seen in the Second World War with Nazi expansion to other countries and its eventual destruction.
Another moral and social issue Vera fought for was her belief in the equality of women. Fighting to attend college and not permitting herself to be defined by society’s expectation that she only fill the role of a wife and mother, Vera was both a product of her time and a leader in the women’s movement. Both of her beliefs in ending war and in the equality of women were supported by her Christian beliefs, although the film only lightly touches on her faith.
Testament of Youth is a true story of a young woman’s life-changing journey from the loss of innocence to the commitment to end the warring madness and inequalities of our human condition. It is a powerful depiction we commend to all.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
- Research into Brittain’s political and ideological beliefs affirm that it was her Christian faith that was formative (http://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.425963). Why do you think these filmmakers downplayed the fact that she was a Christian and the role her faith played in shaping her beliefs and causes?
- When Vera and Roland planned to marry on his Christmas break, he died just days before on December 22. Shot by a sniper when he volunteered to repair the barbed wire protecting his men, he continued to demonstrate both his courage and his sense of responsibility. If you had been Vera and lost your fiancé only days before your wedding, how would you have dealt with it? To whom would you have turned for comfort and counsel? How does your faith inform you and help you deal with death?
- Edward’s father tried to keep him from enlisting. However, he finally relented and gave his tear-filled permission. What would you have done if you were he and your son wanted your permission to enlist when your nation goes to war?