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Film Review

Testament of Youth

Few people today truly appreciate the impact of the First World War (1914-18) on England, the Continent and Russia. Both sides blundered into a war that all assumed would be short and relatively bloodless. Empires were dissolved (Ottoman, Czarist Russia), nations were born or became free (much of Central Europe), and many millions died. It was slaughter on a scale never before seen: Russia lost 2 million men, Germany 2 million, France 1.3 million, and England, excluding the Commonwealth countries, 800 thousand. These were the military deaths. The number of civilian deaths was half the number of military deaths, so that the total number of deaths on all sides was about 17 million. In many countries, nearly an entire generation of men was lost, and most women of that generation could not ever expect to find husbands. Further, millions returned home badly wounded or severely affected. Shell shock became the term used to describe men who were obviously suffering from combat stresses; today we use the the label PTSD. Bronze plaques in all English churches, no matter how small the parish, have a very long list of those who died. They remain sad reminders of the slaughter, rarely noticed by visitors today. Most say: for honor and country, remember us, or words to that effect. Few do remember, so today these pleas seem to mock. It also seems clear now that one of the effects of WW I was to plant the seeds for WW II.

Yet great literature and art emerged from the madness. One such was a memoir by Vera Brittain, an English writer, who lost her brother, fiancé and close friends in the War. Her book, Testament of Youth, was published in 1933 and immediately became a best seller. Brittain was an early feminist, with her account of the impact of the war on families and her own experiences as a nurse at the front. She also wrote about her efforts to become educated and independent in an era when women were not welcomed in colleges and universities. She struggled to live a normal life after the horrors she witnessed as a nurse. She returned to Oxford, earned her degree, and began to speak out for the League of Nations and against war. Although she worked as a fire warden and raised funds for food relief during WW II, she spoke out against the saturation bombing of German cities, a distinctly unpopular opinion in England then. Ironically, her book likely fueled England's reluctance to confront Hitler until the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Always progressive, she was outspoken against Colonialism and Apartheid. She married and had one son, whose daughter became a Labor Cabinet Minister. Brittain died in 1970, and her will specified that her ashes be scattered on her brother's grave.

Although the BBC did a miniseries (1979) of Testament of Youth, strangely no one had produced a feature film. Now, James Kent, an English television and documentary director, has put together a powerful adaption of Brittain's book. His film opens with a scene of English crowds celebrating the end of the War on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, a day that would become known as Armistice Day. Vera wanders through the cheering crowds and fireworks, then walks into a church where women in black are praying. They are the mothers and widows of the dead; the end of the war has come too late for them. Then the film's narrative begins in the form of a flashback to just before the war. Vera's beloved brother and a group of friends are playing and enjoying an upper class country life. The scenes of the Yorkshire countryside are gorgeous. The boys are just about to leave for Oxford but Vera is having a difficult time convincing her father that she should go to college. Her brother helps persuade him and Vera soon is taking entrance exams at Oxford. As they are walking, the camera lingers on a newspaper headline: "Archduke is Shot", which begins to chronicle the unexpected chain of events that will lead to a world war. A few days later, other headlines seen in brief glimpses become even more ominous. Soon, men, including Vera's brother and friends, are enlisting. Everyone is patriotic and convinced the war will be short. Vera, in spite of herself, has fallen in love with Roland, one of her brother's close friends. Soon enough, the boys are either posted or volunteer for the front. The director shows them in muddy trenches, with fixed bayonets, looking at us as if to say "remember us". But wisely the director does not show actual scenes of fighting. which gives the trench scenes even greater power. After reading their letters, Vera feels compelled to volunteer as a nurse. The hospital scenes are impressive for their realism. A central theme of the film is spoken by a head mistress at Somerville College whose brother died in the war: "We are surrounded by ghosts; we must learn to live with them".

There are two scenes in particular, both borrowed from other films, that are unforgettable. The farewell at the train station, with all of the parents and wives trying to be brave, waving as the troop train pulls out. The soldiers on board wave back, with confident handsome smiles. They could not know. The second riveting scene is a boom shot, surely inspired by that famous scene in Gone with the Wind, showing hundreds of wounded and dying men on stretchers on the ground. Here their dull uniforms and blankets are punctuated by the nurses in their blue and whites, looking like flowers in a vast field as seen from the elevated viewpoint. Borrowed or not, both scenes are very powerful. Even beyond this, the camerawork is outstanding, with the Yorkshire landscape itself almost becoming a character in the story. Alicia Vikander (Anna Karenina, Ex Machina, et al) seems a perfect Vera, Kit Harington (Game of Thrones) a perfect Roland, and the rest of the ensemble cast, all English and some not well known here, are equally good. The soundtrack is memorable, from soaring flights of triumph to mourning tones. Initially the pacing of Testament of Youth seemed slow, but gathered speed almost to synchronize with the slide into wartime. I loved this epic film which is very traditional in its structure yet with great power. It is a fitting memorial to Vera Brittain herself. Running time: 129 minutes. Just opened at the Clay; does not seem to be playing elsewhere yet.

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