Saturday, 24 January 2015

Mini film review: Testament of Youth (2014)

A second film version of Testament of Youth *****(2014), based on author and peace campaigner Vera Brittain’s anti- war biography of the same name which was published in the 1930s, has just been released. ‘Testament’ means a covenant, ‘keeping one’s promise’ and a legal will. My sense is that the title means keeping faith with the departed friends of one’s youth, to speak about and for them.

The story is about a circle of gilded youths and an attractive girl full of promise, who are destroyed by World War One: only the girl, a budding Oxford-educated writer survives to tell about their love and tragic story. In its latest BBC version, talented Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays Vera Brittain (without any accent) and dashing Kit Harington plays her handsome fiance, Roland Leighton who was killed in World War One (in 1915) along with two other young friends and Edward Brittain. In real life, Vera and Roland were beautiful, clever and artistic people so this beautiful and passionate reproduction does them full justice. It has absolute historic accuracy, including Edwardian panelled rooms, bone china tea cups, perfect maxi Edwardian lace and silk clothes and charming hats. It is hard not to like all that.

It describes the naivete of people in 1914 thinking the Great War ‘will be over by Christmas’ and shows British women urging sons and brothers - to their deaths. It is also honest about the gulf that opened up between those fighting at the Front and those kept in ignorance at home, so great that soldiers on leave wanted to return to the Front and the men they could share the horror with. The romantic scenes between Vera and Roland, who barely touch (and certainly never spend a single night together) are moving. They have to endure the presence of a chaperone, to stop them kissing.

I was particularly interested in Vera as volunteer nurse at Etaples Military Hospital, near Calais, shown as a vast camp of wooden huts which housed wounded British and German. She was there when my nineteen year old grandfather was sent to Etaples having been shot in December 1917 before being ferried home to a convalescent home in Boscombe. Thanks to these volunteer nurses, he lived - but there is a huge military graveyard at Etaples. In the film, nurses have to hack off gangrenous limbs with saws, hold the dying and comfort the delirious with blood spurting over their hands and clothes i.e generally do their noblest best.

I would highly recommend this film to anyone interested in World War One or in the authentic Edwardian era. The film is rather middle class and public school focused and similar tragedies, if not worse ones, happened in all classes in society. However, the British public schools did take much a higher percentage of losses in World War One than state schools as recent research has confirmed. There was 22-30% death rate in public schools whereas the average death rate for state schools was around 12-15%.

Review of "Testament of Youth" in The Telegraph 

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