Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth made a great impression on me when I finally read it several years ago. My interest in it led me to read more by and about Brittain, as well as more by and about her close friend Winifred Holtby, and then to research and eventually offer a seminar on a cluster of the “Somerville Novelists,” including Brittain, Holtby, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margaret Kennedy. In addition to the many blog posts I wrote on this material, I published an essay on Holtby in 3:AM Magazine and a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain” at For Books’ Sake. I find the intellectual vitality and political passion of these women inspiring, and I have both reveled in and puzzled over their writing, which is not always aesthetically satisfying but never fails to be interesting. So naturally I have been waiting eagerly to see the 2014 adaptation of Testament of Youth — and last night I finally got the chance. (Hooray for Video Difference: may it never close down!)
Overall, I was pretty impressed. The acting (and the casting) is excellent, especially Alicia Vikander as Vera; the productions values are very high; and I thought it made a good effort to cover the central aspects of Brittain’s story. It didn’t include quite everything: in it, she doesn’t go to Malta, for example (which, just cinematically, seems like a lost opportunity). But it does incorporate both some of the poetry that was so important to Brittain and her four young men and some of their letters, including the very poignant one from Geoffrey in which he observes the unexpected beauty of the setting sun reflected in the shell craters at the front.
Still, the film wasn’t quite my version of Testament of Youth. It was a bit too slow-paced, and the artsy nature shots and pensive stares the director favored didn’t seem true to Brittain’s tough-mindedness. Though it is an emotional book, I found it particularly significant as an intellectual Bildungsroman, and though the plot of the film did follow this progression, the mood of the film turned it into more of a sentimental journey. Perhaps the concern was that Brittain herself might not be a very sympathetic heroine if this “bluestocking” aspect were emphasized any more than it was. I did find when I taught Testament that the students did not warm to her. She certainly is no Bridget Jones: hers is a life defined by competence, ambition, and self-assertion, and we do still seem to have trouble embracing these as heroic female qualities.
I would also have liked more emphasis on the context that led these young men to their doom: the ebullient nationalism and glorification of war are touched on only a couple of times and so the theme of disillusionment that’s so important to Brittain’s account is not as evident or painful. There’s plenty of contrast in the film between the golden pre-war days and the horrors of the battlefield, but the ideology of it all seemed muffled by the personal story in a way that Brittain never allows. I did appreciate that the film ended with the emergence of her as a public speaker and a pacifist.
I assume they didn’t film at the actual Somerville College because it doesn’t look enough like people’s dreams of Oxford. And yet its novelty among the other colleges is part of the point!