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Testament of Youth: The Voice of a Generation?

Alex Mayhew
Commentary, 11 November 2014
The Great War, Art, Culture and Literature, UK, History, Europe
James Kent’s film misunderstands the original purpose of Vera Brittain’s memoir but succeeds in portraying her personal traumas

The most recent adaptation of Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s memoir of her experience of the Great War, recently premiered at the London Film Festival. It has received mixed reviews and the comments of this historian are unlikely to add much to the discussions regarding its artistic merits. However, the film’s themes and critical reception do present an interesting point of discussion.

The film charts the experiences of a young Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), a highly intelligent proto-suffragette. She is about to start at Oxford University, where she will spend a number of happy years with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and new love interest (Kit Harington). The palpable excitement and optimism of her pre-war world is destroyed by the commencement of conflict. For Brittain, what follows is a torrid four years, which see her sacrifice her education at Oxford and lose many of those closest to her, including her brother and fiancée.

Both the film and the book remind us of sometimes under-represented aspects of the Great War – the Home Front and women. As Craig Gibson has recently argued in Behind the Front: British Soldiers and French Civilians, 1914–1918, ‘too often those whose sacrifices and responsibilities continued after the end of the hostilities, often women, usually out of history’s gaze… are over-looked.’

The Trauma of Those Left Behind

Some of the most poignant scenes are those depicting the troops departing for the front. The foreboding that many of the men will not return is embraced and exploited by the director, James Kent. Particularly striking is the moment that Brittain’s father (Dominic West), the epitome of the stoic Edwardian, breaks down after bidding his son farewell.

The instants at which the feared impersonal telegrams were delivered bearing the news of a loved-one’s death are immensely moving. One is forced to recognise the depth of trauma experienced by those left behind. The scene in which Vera’s Oxford tutor, played by Miranda Richardson, comes close to collapsing on learning that her brother died or the vision of a distraught Brittain listening to the sobs of her father upon receiving news of Edward’s death are examples of this.

Furthermore, Brittain’s experiences as a nurse underline the role of women in the military during the First World War. The sights of the hospitals and medical posts at the front are deployed as an effective mirror to the experiences of men at war. We see nothing of battle but are presented with its aftermath – injury and death – underlined when a field full of stretchers confronts Vera. While this ignores the positive military developments that occurred, this was the reality of a nurse’s war.  

The pathos created here is not only for the soldiers going to war but for those left behind. Both the original text and this film are successful in demonstrating the collective grief of a civil society universally touched by the war. Although they did not serve, the war was a painful experience for civilians.

A Personal Experience of War

However, there are problems with how the film presents itself. At the film’s close we are reminded that Brittain was ‘the voice of a generation.’ This belief dominates both the film and its reception. However, if we base our understanding of Brittain’s book on this assumption it will distort our appreciation of what her contribution really means. Brittain did not intend for her publication to be such. Indeed, she was shocked bythe reception of Testament. Like most memoirs, this was written, at least in large part, as psychological therapy through which Brittain could begin to deal with her grief and come to terms with her experiences.

Both positive and negative appraisals of the film have picked up on this idea of Brittain being the voice of a generation. As such there is an expectation that the picture should underline the futility and horror of the war in starker terms. Peter Bradshaw, of the Guardian, was disappointed – arguing that ‘Vera Brittain’s memoir is tastefully realised, but the film drifts meekly away from the necessary pain and anger, leaving a kind of heritage inertia.’ He remarks positively about the performances but feels that the film’s structure did not allow for the emotion to explode into the rhetoric of Sassoon, Owen or Graves, with which we are familiar.

However, this is unfair. This is one woman’s experience of war. A highly personal narrative of her struggle with the destructive consequences of the conflict, and it should be viewed as such.

For this reason, we should also avoid being overly critical of the film for not presenting a more nuanced view of the First World War and perhaps forgive some of its apparent faults. It is very difficult to present a more balanced story when Brittain’s account is one of unquestionable sadness.

Overall the film was considered and successfully condenses Brittan’s 600-page memoir in a way that effectively portrays her experience. While it might take its place within the traditionally negative appraisal of the Great War, it still gets this historian’s seal of approval.

Alex Mayhew is a PhD Candidate at the London School of Economics.

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