Created by: Vera Brittain (autobiography)
Directed by: James Kent
Written by: Juliette Towhidi
Produced by: Rosie Alison, David Heyman, Zygi Kamasa, Christine Langan, Richard Mansell, Joe Oppenheimer (among others)
Other cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Kit Harington, Joanna Scanlan, Miranda Richardson, Daisy Waterstone
Release date: 16 January 2015 (UK)
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running time: 2h 9min
A British woman recalls coming of age during World War I - a story of young love, the futility of war, and how to make sense of the darkest times.
Synopsis (Warning: contains spoilers!)
Testament of Youth is a powerful coming-of-age story which tackles love, war, loss and remembrance. It’s based on the beloved WW1 memoir by Vera Brittain, which was a bestseller on publication, heralded as the voice of a generation and has become the classic testimony of that war, from a woman’s point of view. Vera’s story encompasses vast themes – youth, hope, dreams, love, war, futility, and how to make sense of the darkest times. It’s a key witness account of WW1, which continues to resonate because it is above all a personal story of how one person faces war and tragedy, and rises above them.
The story begins in the Edwardian spring of 1914, with Vera Brittain – a youthful feminist, free-minded and irrepressible – determined to sit exams for Oxford, against her conservative parents’ wishes. She is encouraged and inspired by her brother and his friends, particularly the brilliant Roland Leighton, who shares her dream of being a writer. But her hopes for Oxford with Roland turn to dust as war is declared, and all the young men enlist; she herself gives up her dream of writing, and becomes a nurse. What follows is a story of heightened, urgent love between Vera and Roland – interrupted by the war, as Vera moves closer and closer to the front, eventually nursing German soldiers, who help her to recognise the futility of war. Through Vera we see youthful love buffeted by fatal losses and the overpowering tide of history, as one by one those closest to her are lost to the war. Yet Vera’s story is also one of survival, as she returns from the war determined to find a new purpose, and to keep faith with those she has lost, spurring her towards a powerful act of remembrance.
The film follows Vera’s rites of passage through war, and through her wartime experiences, we understand how she went on to write one of the defining memoirs of her age, which gave voice to a lost generation. Many elements in the film (such as the key letters from the front and Roland’s poems) are authentic, and it’s the fact that Testament of Youth is a genuine witness testimony which gives the story its power.
- Saoirse Ronan was originally cast as Vera Brittain but she dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. Alicia Vikander replaced her.
- The film was shot in various locations in Yorkshire, Oxford and London. The railway station scenes, the train interiors, and the scene in the railway café, were shot at Keighley Station, using trains provided by the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway. The landscape shots of period trains were filmed at the heritage track of the The North Yorkshire Moors Railway. The Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire provided several locations, including the scenes at Uppingham school, Melrose house and the Etaples field hospital. The lake scenes were filmed in Darley Dale in Derbyshire.
- Alicia Vikander and cinematography Rob Hardy worked together on Ex Machina (2015)
- To get the extras to act urgently and emotionally in the train station where Vera and Roland stay their goodbyes, director James Kent blasted loud house music from large speakers. The initial juxtaposition was so jarring that Kit Harington nearly peed himself with laughter.
- Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan both went on to star in Legend (2015)
Vera Brittain: Her mind was like a spring-tide in full flood; rich, shining, vigorous, and capable of infinite variety.
Vera Brittain: If this word should turn out to be a ‘Te moriturum saluto,’ perhaps it will brighten the dark moments a little to think how you have meant to someone more than anything ever has or ever will. What you have striven for will not end in nothing, all that you have done and been will not be wasted, for it will be a part of me as long as I live, and I shall remember, always.
Vera Brittain: Like no one else… you share that part of my mind that associates itself mostly with ideal things and places… The impression thinking about you gives me is very closely linked with that given me by a lonely hillside or a sunny afternoon… or books that have meant more to me than I can explain… This is grand, but still it isn’t enough for this world… The earthly and obvious part of me longs to see and touch you and realise you as tangible.
Vera Brittain: I wondered if he was looking up at that same moon, far away, and thinking of me as I was thinking of him.” “‘I can scarcely bear to think of him ,’ I wrote, ‘and yet I cannot bear to think of anything else. For the time being all people, all ideas, all interests have set, and sunk below the horizon of my mind; he alone I can contemplate, whom of all things in heaven and earth it hurts to think about most.'” Perhaps… Perhaps some day the sun will shine again, And I shall see that still the skies are blue, And feel one more I do not live in vain, Although bereft of you.
Winifred Holtby: All of us are surrounded by ghosts. Now we need to learn how to live with them.
Vera Brittain: Edward was always a good listener, since his own form of self-expression then consisted in making unearthly and to me quite meaningless sounds on his small violin. I remember him, at the age of seven, as a rather solemn, brown-eyed little boy, with beautiful arched eyebrows which lately, to my infinite satisfaction, have begun to reproduce themselves, a pair of delicate question-marks, above the dark eyes of my five-year-old son…
Vera Brittain: Please don’t keep things back from me, Roland, with an idea of sparing my feelings. I shall never be afraid to confront the real. The imagined holds far greater terror for me.
Edward Brittain: I’m so glad you were near and saw him so nearly at the end. We share a memory of both of them, dear Vera, that is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power should you ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.
Vera Brittain: They’ll want to forget you. They’ll want me to forget. But I can’t. I won’t. This is my promise to you now. All of you.
Vera Brittain: At college, more than anywhere else, one was likely to make the friendships that supported one through life.
Testament of Youth was well received upon its release. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 82% of 109 film critics have given the film a positive review, with an average rating of 7 out of 10. The website’s consensus reads, “Testament of Youth is well-acted and beautifully filmed, adding up to an enriching if not adventurous experience for fans of British period dramas.” Metacritic, which assigns a weighted average score out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, gives the film a score of 77 based on 33 reviews.
On January 5, Alicia attended the ‘Testament of Youth’ premiere in London, alongside co-star Kit Harington. A few months later, on June 2, she attended the New York City premiere, once again with Kit. On September 7, she attended the French premiere in Paris, alone this time.
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