Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain
Kit Harington as Roland Leighton (her fiancé)
Taron Egerton as Edward Brittain (her brother)
Colin Morgan as Victor Richardson
Jonathan Bailey as Geoffrey Thurlow
Henry Garett as George Catlin
Dominic West as Mr Brittain
Emily Watson as Mrs Brittain
Miranda Richardson as Miss Lorimer (Somerville)
Joanna Scanlan as Aunt Belle
Hayley Atwell as Hope
The British biopics continue … Mr Turner, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, and now Vera Brittain who wrote Testament of Youth in the 1930s based on her experiences and those of her brother and friends in World War One. This ties in to the anniversary of the First World War, starting with her as a young feminist in 1914, keen to go to Oxford University, then leaving to become a volunteer nurse first in England, then on the Western Front. The location makes a slight change from Cambridge last week in The Theory of Everything. For me it was full of locations we had used in ELT videos … the Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs. St. John’s College filled in for Somerville, which was the first women’s college at Oxford. Quite rightly, as a view from Somerville would not be the dreaming spires, but the old Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford University Press or the glass and concrete “University Chest” (i.e, financial offices).
We chose to see it today, because the Empire multiplex had it down for the first of the new BFI Presents series of previews of British films. That’s three days before official opening, and echoing NT Live, ROH Live and RSC Live, the BFI broadcast it to 300 UK cinemas, with a Question & Answer session live from the BFI to follow. This featured director James Kent, producer Rosie Alison, leading actress Alicia Vikander and, marvellously, Vera Brittain’s daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams. Let’s hope this series becomes a regular feature, not that the cinema was full (and neither was the British Film Institute cinema), but it was the first. The “outtakes” before failed to broadcast unfortunately. The Q & A was highly informative … the outdoor lake swimming scenes, allegedly summer, were filmed in March, which was freezing cold. The injured amputee soldiers in the field hospital scenes were partly genuine Iraq / Afghanistan veterans who were enthused by demonstrating what the aftermath of war was like. James Kent’s favourite shot was the crane shot over the rows of stretchers, which echoes the Atlanta injured in Gone With The Wind.
Alicia Vikander is Swedish, and played the part of Kitty in Anna Karenina (the most viewed review on this blog). As a film based on an autobiography, everyone else is “support” and her performance vies with Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything for leading actress of the year. Reviewers have sniffed around for traces of Swedish intonation, but any they might winkle out are less than the normal variation in native speakers’ voices and idiolect. None leapt out at me, and that’s basically been my job. I suspect that in 1914 all the main parts would have spoken strangulated Advanced RP, but it’s only sensible to tone it down to RP – Advanced RP always sounds like you’re mocking the characters.
The four friends: Edward, Vera, Roland & Victor. We never know when it’s Summer 1914 …
James Kent talked at length about his four young principal actors, and how their youthful spirit really conveyed the impending sacrifice. The thought that ran through my head was, “We never know when we’re living in early August 1914.” As a film about the effect of war, it reflected through the female reaction, the home front, those suffering the loss. Producer Rosie Alison said that Alicia Vikander’s casting was a key moment in putting the production together because in auditioning, she combined the fierce intelligence of Vera Brittain with her determination. But she also has to appear genuinely feminine and moved and emotionally vulnerable (though strong) throughout. Among the many marvellous moments is when she becomes a volunteer nurse and goes to France. She finds she has been assigned to the wounded Huns, those her brother Edward is trying to kill a few miles away. She comforts a dying man by speaking in German and pretending to be his loved one. This is a moment she recalls at a post-war political meeting, and it’s what lead the real Vera Brittain to pacifism, and stern opposition to the carpet bombing of Germany in World War Two.
Another powerful moment is when the family say goodbye to her brother Edward at the railway station, and Dominic West as her father breaks down in tears. Watching a parent cry is traumatic for a child – possibly even more so in such an era of stiff upper lips.
Roland (Kit Harington) and Vera (Alicia Vikander). He’s home from the Front.
The relationship with her fiancé, Roland (Kit Harington) is beautifully filmed. Both are so good looking, and full of eager youthful love … then we get the shell shocked Roland on leave. Kit Harington looks much younger in 1914 than as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones or in Pompeii, though he has aged (or returned to his real age) when he comes back on the short leave from the front. It started with Murder One and has taken years via 24 and The Sopranos, but you now have to say that the major HBO series is now equivalent to a Hollywood film on the cv. Another snippet from the Q&A was that Kit Harrington was only on set for three weeks due to other film commitments so his scenes had to be compressed into that time slot … Alicia Vikander says they really missed his presence for the rest of the shoot.
But that was also the story, because Roland died first, in 1915, the other two friends in 1917, while her brother Edward died in 1918. I did wonder about the coincidences … meeting the blinded Victor in hospital in England just before he died, saving her brother who had been placed with the corpses though not quite dead (he survived but died on another front), marrying the man who told her the true story of Roland’s painful death. We know she married Catlin, but was he the one and then also the guy at the political meeting? But the book is a moving classic, and the exchanged poems and letters were real.
Vera as a nurse
British films this year as ever excel in the cameos and support actors willing to take part. Vera’s parents are not huge parts but we have Dominic West and Emily Watson – Emily Watson was in The Book Thief, my favourite film of last year). Miranda Richardson plays a powerful Miss Lorimer at Somerville College. Joanna Scanlon, who I loved as the drama teacher on TV in Big School has a cameo as Aunt Belle, made to chaperone Vera in her meetings with Roland.
The detailed creation of the era is a British film given, and one I noticed was the few seconds of rugby. The three friends, Edward, Roland and Victor are in their last year at public school as the film starts. They’re seen playing rugby, and the kit, the boots, the referee are exactly like “Boys Own” annuals from the period. The rugby scene is one of many neat directorial touches, the thick black mud in this scene is to return in Flanders, and again when Vera wanders the moors distraught after a death.
It’s a moving picture of World War One eschewing heroics, merely glimpsing the effects of action … no walking into the gunfire. They are just as effective showing Vera reading the endless list of casualties in just one day’s edition of the newspaper. There were two lost generations of course. The young men who died, as well as those mentally crippled by what they experienced. Then there were the women left bereft … read Richmal Crompton’s William books of the 1920s and 1930s, populated by spinsters, maiden aunts. Karen’s old drama teacher was like so many female teachers of the 1930s to 1960s … someone who lost a fiancé in the war and who never married. They did wonders for our education system in their devotion to the job. To that lost female generation, Vera Brittain was a beacon of light. She learned, she passed it on.
The film also reveals the Gung-ho, up ‘n’ at ’em mentality of 1914, and it opens with Vera pushing her way through the 1918 Armistice celebrations. She has learned in the process, but the Armistice celebration followed by the political meeting indicates that most haven’t. I heard many tales of World War One from my Great Uncle Ben as a child. He used to say that the great untold secret of World War One was how often young, fresh out of public school officers died leading attacks from the trenches. The death toll is no secret, but he said the never investigated statistic was how many died from shots in the back from their own lines. He said you’d have blokes who’d been in the trenches for two years, literally up to their neck in muck and bullets, and there was a never-ending supply of 18 year old boys with officer’s pips bent on glory. And the experienced men behind them had lost the desire to run into a hail of machine gun fire while trying to cross barbed wire during shelling. He first told me these stories when I came home from grammar school in my Combined Cadet Force (CCF) uniform, which he reviled. The CCF is the starting point at school for the characters in this film too. Ben had been a miner, and had been there when Churchill turned cavalry against unarmed South Wales miners in the General Strike of 1926, another story that he impressed on me that I should never forget. Ben was a pacifist. He must have greatly approved of Vera Brittain.
Max Richter’s music is integral- though James Kent says it was sourced at the edit stage, and Alicia Vikander had been listening to Richter on her iPod to create her mood for scenes. Max Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight is also used in Shutter Island in a mash-up with Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth, and that is one of the great soundtrack moments of the last decade. Incidentally, one blooper to look out for, which Kent mentions, is that one of the nurses drops an illicit-on-set iPhone in the mud at one point.
The film is a perfect starter for the BFI series, because it exemplifies what British cinema does so well. Superb acting in depth and breadth, understated stories, the cinematography to reveal beautiful scenery. What a generation of actors we have with Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne, Emily Blunt, Felicity Jones and now Kit Harington and (I think an honorary acting Brit) Alicia Vikander. It’s a five star film.