While I would normally do a general review of a film, “Testament of Youth” will be a little different because this film hit very close to home for me.
Synopsis – This film is based on the memoir written by Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander from “A Royal Affair”). This young woman’s sole desire was to go to Oxford, just like her brother. Her father wanted her to remain home. As a consolation, while they were out swimming with a friend, her father purchased a piano for her. It was enough money to pay for one year at Oxford.
When she arrived home to discover this, she was angry. As she’s telling her father that she will never marry, not ever in this lifetime, the man she would fall in love with walked into the house. Roland Leighton (played by Kit Harington from “Game of Thrones”).
This was right before World War I began.
Her brother managed to talk their father into letting her take the entry exams at Oxford. SPOILER ALERT: She got in.
As she prepared to go to Oxford with her brother, Roland and friends, the Great War began. All of the boys decided to sign up.
During the summer before the war, Roland and Vera started to fall deeper and deeper in love with each other. When Roland broke the news to her that he had enlisted, it was on the day they should have been heading to Oxford to begin school together.
As more time went on, she decided she had to do something, so she took leave from Oxford to work as a nurse. She started in the hospitals in Britain before later heading to the front.
War changes people. Roland was no exception. He tried to put the walls between them, but she refused to allow him to do it. That was when he proposed to her, promising to marry during his next leave.
SPOILER ALERT: He died. On the day they were to wed, his mother called the hotel to inform her that he had died.
He wasn’t the only one that died in the war. Her brother died, as well as their friend, Victor. She lost all of the people she grew up with and loved to the Great War.
After the war had ended, she became one of the greatest female pacifists in history and a writer.
Close to Home
If I’m going to be honest, I almost got up and left several times. It wasn’t because the film was bad. Quite the contrary. It just hit a little too close to home for me.
Before Roland died, I knew it was coming, because like Vera, those moments of reflection reminded me of having those moments. You remember their skin jutting out from their shirt sleeves, the way their hair tossed in the wind, the way they looked at you, the way they smelled, or the way their heart beat against their chest. You remember how it felt when they touched your skin. You remember that pure, untainted love.
These are the memories that stay with you forever. These are the memories you create with your soulmate. Roland and Vera were soulmates.
There were so many elements to what happened in this story that was just like my life story: the need to know exactly what happened when he died, the writings he left for her, being separated due to choices, being taken away at such a young age. All of these elements to Roland and Vera’s story gave me goosebumps. It made me remember my own soulmate. He killed himself just two weeks before my high school graduation.
You have to learn how to live after your soulmate dies. There was a quote in the movie that stuck with me: “We are all surrounded by ghosts. We just have to learn how to live with them.”
The director really communicated what that loss felt like. There were even moments where Kit Harington (with his clean cut) reminded me of those memories I had made with my soulmate.
For those who have felt that great loss of losing your soulmate, you can begin to understand why she took the stand for humanity…to say no to war. War was what took the people she loved deeply away from her.
Her stand against war was about those who have lost loved ones due to war. It wasn’t about politics. It was about humanity. Each side is sending their fathers, brothers, fiancés and husbands to fight in a war. Each side is losing those very people. Each side feels that loss just as deeply as the other side. Her pacifism was about protecting human lives, not about where those lives came from or whose side they were fighting on.
As each person approaches the end of their life, they’re not talking about killing the enemy. They’re calling out to the people they loved.
I’ve been in Vera’s shoes. I’ve been in them for 20 years now…the part where I’m learning how to live with those ghosts. The end of this movie was very important. It was about remembering and honoring those men she lost. When you lose your soulmate and people you were very close to, you can sometimes be on the brink of insanity. You try to forget them in order to survive another day. There were times where Vera almost completely lost herself in her grief.
Vera’s choice in the end was not to forget them. What she did was take that pain and suffering and turn it into something better. The truth is, the reason why people try so hard to make others happy, or advocate for peace like Vera did, is so that others will not experience the same loss they have gone through. They know what it feels like to be destroyed by that loss. They don’t want other people to experience what they’ve experienced. Even if they put a smile on their face to distract others from seeing their own unhappiness, it’s only in an effort to make sure others never go through what they went through. Some pain and suffering need not be repeated. People will do anything to protect others from experiencing that same suffering. Vera spent her life trying to do just that as a pacifist.
Quotes from Kit Harington (Roland) and James Kent (Director)
Tribeca – Kit Harington and James Kent stopped by after this special screening to talk about the film on Wednesday night.
Here are a couple of audio clips from the event:
Here are a few select quotes from the evening.
“She spoke for a generation, because they were the survivors and they needed that time to have the courage to go, ‘No, no more.’ Hitler was beginning to come to power at that time and there was a real fear that Europe could be sliding into something unsavory. I think [Vera] does speak for the lost generation.”
The reason why Harington worked on “Testament of Youth” was because he had read about it in school and knew the story well.
“I knew this text quite well, actually…I studied it at school, both the history and for English literature, studying the war parts. I knew the formidable person Vera Brittain was from her books, from her memoirs. I think that sounds a little bit wishy washy and wanky… Sorry. What I really learned was through Alicia [Vikander’s] depiction of her, I felt it was so accurate, so beautifully done by her that I thought I was talking to that person. In the movie, I thought I was talking to that person, the Brittain I knew very well and loved. That was kind of amazing to experience.”
“I would hope if [Vera Brittain] came back and saw this film, and watched this film in this day and age, in this audience, that she would see a huge difference in who she was.”
“One thing that really scares me about my generation is that we are not as active as [Vera] was. Our discussion is a hard one. In some ways, you can argue that we, with social media, have a greater voice. In some ways, it’s completely dumb’ed down. I think, to me, it’s a very important discussion that has to be had. To my shame, I have never been in a political march in my life. I should have done it.”
“When I first read [Testament of Youth] in school, it actually triggered a real interest in this period for me. I had already been taken to the the Northern War graves, the French War graves, by my father, kind of a right of passage. I think he thought it was important that me and my brother go and see the consequence of war. There’s no better visual consequence than seeing those graves, those names on the wall. I read it at school and it kicked off a far greater interest about that period, about the literature surrounding that period. So when this came through the door, it was important to me that it was done well. Juliette (Towhidi) actually wrote it. I instantly knew when it was halfway through, it was doing it great justice. She had imagined the scenes around the ones that were in the books. They were written and respectfully done.”
On deciding on Kit to play the role of Roland, James Kent:
“What he has is the X-factor, the extra thing, which is a sort of soulful kind of intelligence, intellectual curiosity…a really soulful practical side. It was so important to get Roland right. If you got him wrong, it diminishes Vera as well. That she chose him and fell in love. She wore those dried flowers that you see that he sent her from the front, around her neck in a locket for the rest of her life. She married and she still had these flowers around her neck.”
“It’s very important to me that at the end of the film, she goes out into that pool of water again, because she’s trying to regain the conversation that she had with Roland in the woods where she says she wants to be a writer. He said that you need some experience first. She goes back to that lake with all that experience and finally by going into the water, it’s a baptism. It’s a renewal. It’s a purging. She can make that promise to the boys. I now got what Roland advised me to get. I can now enshrine your story for generations to come. And that’s exactly what you’ve experienced [with this film].”
The film is due out in US theaters on Friday, June 5th.