Thanks for everyone who left comments or kind tweets after my post yesterday about mental health. I’ve been privately told it helped other people that I spoke about it, and that’s really the most important thing of all. Sanity is not an absolute, it’s a spectrum, and most of us who are not utterly phlegmatic dolts or vacuous hosts of greed are somewhere right or left of its centre. Now, let’s get stuck into the film!
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s biography of her early life and experiences during the First World War, is the Bible for fiction writers dealing with the same period. Few novelists can escape its influence, or fail to acknowledge it. It is thorough, detailed and in its own sombre and precise way, shattering. So as you can imagine I was excited to hear a film was coming out based on the book, starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington and a host of other beautiful men whose names I can’t recall. Especially as – full disclosure – I’m related to the person who designed the costumes. All of which are rather lovely and I’d wear them myself if I had the figure!
The first thing to say is that the film is no High Fidelity in that it is not “highly faithful” to the original. Most of the core events are preserved but quite a few scenes are changed around, people miraculously pop up where they shouldn’t have been and never were, people are far more demonstrative than their 1914 counterparts would have been, there is much more slamming of piano lids and tantrums and snogging and – I hate to break it to you all – Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain’s great love in the story, in real life sported a late-adolescent but decidedly visible moustache. (In the film, nobody has a moustache, and proper order too. Anachronism be damned.)
That all said, the film is beautifully shot, moving and vivid. It helps that its star, Alicia Vikander, is luminously beautiful and the camera knows it. Hers is a very rare sort of beauty, one that belongs exclusively to youth and hope, one so singular that its presence only underscores the tragedy that must follow as every veil of that hope, and innocence, and joy, is stripped away. While dwelling on Vikander’s appearance, it would be remiss not to say she is a superb actress, and has absorbed the more irritating facets of Brittain’s personality, though her performance (or more likely, the script, as Vikander is well capable) is perhaps a little too fey to encompass the more fussy, snobbish aspects of the real life counterpart, though there is one brief scene where she is dismissive to a new servant, and the servant is pretty cavalier in return. (This is later in the war, when servants are more scarce and the old order is beginning to break up)
In her young years, Vera Brittain was forced by convention to live a stifling existence with her parents in Buxton. The claustrophobia of the house and the ticking clock are brilliantly portrayed, though Dominic West as the rural patriarch of the Brittain family is rather too good-looking for the role – again, no reflection on his excellent acting, just feminine distraction on my part. Vera is intelligent and longs more than anything to go to college, but her parents are (at first) dead set against it, though they eventually relent. Meanwhile, brother Edward brings to their home his friends Roland and Victor, and the scene where they first meet is started by Vera throwing a tantrum, something that rather jarred with me, as she was not the type, and behaviour like that, so demonstrative in front of visitors, was simply not done at the time. But the wanders in the woods and lanes, constantly referred to retrospectively as the war years unfold as an impossible Paradise, are beautifully shot. The swimming sequence, which starts from a brief flash forward to 1918 at the beginning of the film, is very well done artistically, and exploited for maximum emotional impact.
The restrictive mores of the time are nodded at in an excellent scene featuring Joanna Scanlan as Aunt Belle the chaperone. (Joanna Scanlan is fast becoming one of my favourite actresses – she is so versatile) However what’s lost is how truly oppressive those mores were. Vera and Roland, who are beginning to achieve a romantic understanding, evade and dodge the irate chaperone as if it were a game, rather than a powerful system that could wreck relationships at a whim, if they caused parental or institutional displeasure. In the film, Vera and Roland kiss passionately on the train before crowds separate them. (This is after Roland, in martial and patriotic fervour, has signed up and got his orders rather earlier than his comrades, thanks to an uncle in the military.) In real life, in that same scene, Roland kissed Vera’s fingers and that’s as far as he got. However the poetry he sends Vera, in one of the more touching sequences of the film, is all real; Roland was already an accomplished poet even at a very young age. All three of the men in Vera’s life – four, once Geoffrey Thurlow meets Edward – were talented in some discipline or other, Edward being a composer and violinist.
Interestingly, a fact left out of Brittain’s original book – because she did not know it, because Edward could not reveal such a thing to his sister – was Edward’s homosexuality, which brought to bear on his experience on the front in ways I can’t detail here without spoiling the story. The film doesn’t interrogate this much, but it does give it a brief and sweet acknowledgement when Edward intimates at a special love for Geoffrey, who is seen as something of a visionary. This did not exist in reality, but as an artistic touch it’s nice. It’s the one successful moment in a sequence that doesn’t quite work for me – Edward’s sudden appearance in France once Vera has left Oxford for war duties, and been reassigned there. The entire idea is total fiction – Vera and Edward never met in France – and Vera running around the field hospital dragging her muddy skirts and wailing while she stumbles over corpses (by 1917 these would have been carried away and buried by the Chinese labourers specially requisitioned for this task) is rather unedifying and melodramatic, as well as out of character. Another fictional scene has George Catlin, Vera Brittain’s real life husband, as a British officer telling Vera some battle-related information which cannot be revealed because of spoilers! But Catlin was
an American, and not sent to fight until the war was almost over. I know liberties have to be taken for dramatic integrity, but this struck me as a bit much!
But with all those cavils, it’s a wonderful film. The one great emotional truth it manages to distil, and ring like a sounding bell, is the absolute quality of grief, how it endures, in an time of mass extermination. Seeing what Vera had to go through, again and again and again, is harrowing, and credit to Vikander that she never makes it look repetitive or forced. It’s all raw, and real. The use of poems and flashbacking is superlative and wrings the viewer emotionally. The real data in the book – one man’s morphine-laden last words, the return of a uniform – is used, turned around and exploited to the absolute hilt so we will feel it vividly. One is never let off the hook, and never should want to be. The last pledge, Vera’s never to forget, is truly heartbreaking. And thereby, the film keeps faith with the book.
Perhaps it is best to leave off with a quote from one of Leighton’s poems which he sent to Vera, titled “Hedauville” and written in late 1915:
The sunshine on the long white road
That ribboned down the hill,
The velvet clematis that clung
Around your window-sill
Are waiting for you still.
Again the shadowed pool shall break
In dimples at your feet,
And when the thrush sings in your wood,
Unknowing you may meet
Another stranger, Sweet.
And if he is not quite so old
As the boy you used to know,
And less proud, too, and worthier,
You may not let him go –
(And daisies are truer than passion-flowers)
It will be better so.