Testament

Time for another review and a tie-in to…something. Recently saw Testament and Youth, a film apparently released worldwide last fall, but only recently making it to Bay Area theaters. The film is based upon a First World War memoir of the same name by Vera Brittain. Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays the historical figure, a suffragette and then later, a pacifist. That pacifism comes later is one of the story’s tragic themes. Vera is born into a well-to-do family in rural Britain, headed by a stern, if decent paternalist (played by Dominic West), and mothered by a prim yet henish character played by Emily Watson. Opening scenes feature Vera as a petulant but gifted daughter, angry at her father for buying her a piano for her birthday, with money that should have been allocated for an Oxford education. He exasperates over her ingratitude. She despairs that chauvinistic men, however benevolent, will never listen. Vera wants the world to listen. She is poetic, ambitious of becoming a writer, envious of her brother and his two friends, a triumvirate of carefree maleness.

Vera spends her spare time in their company as often as possible, partly because they are charming and fun, but more importantly, because theirs are privileged and coveted lives. Her brother, in particular, is a cheerful saint: advocating for his sister, he insists that their father allow Vera to “sit” for entrance exams at her dream college, Oxford. The father reluctantly agrees, and Vera passes the requisite exam, despite flightily overlooking instructions to write her essays in Latin and not German, which she has prophetically learned as a child. She returns home, initially discouraged, thinking she has failed in her dream. However, the head mistress who oversees admissions appears to like Vera, saying she has an “original mind”. Indeed she does, though following events reveal her to be as naive–and in some ways traditionalist–as anyone.

It is 1914 and war is breaking out. The young men of the towns and villages are signing up for military duty, gleeful at the chance to serve, plus believing the villainous Kaiser will be vanquished in no time. Vera’s father, however patriotic he may be, is nonetheless anxious about allowing his only son to fight, but Edward (Vera’s brother) is determined to serve, and Vera, reciprocating Edward’s earlier support of her, exhorts her father to “let him be a man”. It’s an interesting passage in the film, and surely also in the original memoir, for it betrays a likely truism: that while many women challenged the status quo with respect to their social roles, fewer sought to challenge the mores that led men to slaughter. BTW: it’s known that most notable suffragettes, like Emmeline Pankhurst for example, supported the war and recruitment efforts, and even suspended their violent campaign for voting rights. Vera Brittain was on the periphery of this movement, it seems, but in the story is more concerned with her education. She is concerned about the war because it would separate her from her brother, and in particular, because it steals away the emerging love of her life, Edward’s friend Roland.

The middle portion of the film introduces everyone to the horrors of war, firstly by revealing the shellshocked detachment of Edward and Roland when they return home on leave. Roland in particular seems distant and angry, often snapping at Vera, impatient with her innocence. He recovers his loving nature sufficiently in order to propose marriage, but of course the wedding never happens. Roland is killed in France soon after, a year into hostilities. Grieving but galvanized, Vera abandons college, signs up to be a nurse, first on home soil, treating returning soldiers, then later on the front lines, in France. Initially, her challenge is to overcome the severity of her nursing supervisors, the grudging attitudes of her peers, who smell Oxford elitism upon her. But Vera is resilient, tough, and above all truth-seeking, which eventually wins her admirers. Most powerful is a scene in which she has sought out the commander of Roland’s former unit. Bravely, she penetrates the commander’s consoling platitudes and learns the full truth of her fiance’s dying ordeal.

It’s another turning point in the story, which plunges further into the horror of war, sparing no one the grisly details. On the front lines, Vera treats the maimed and the dying with increasing maturity but diminishing hope, all the while maintaining a grim hold on reality. One after another, characters perish. Finally, and inevitably, Vera learns that her brother Edward has also fallen victim. At this point it is 1917, just before the end of the war. On Armistice day, she wades through a crowd of revelers, unable to join in celebrations, for everyone she has loved is either dead or has been broken irrevocably. At her home in the countryside, her mother dithers, a shadow of her once vital self. She is unable to get out of bed. Her father is quiet, at times sobbing–a lonely, depressed man. The film’s climax is a town hall meeting: Vera takes the stage and shouts down a raucous crowd which is protesting the notion that Germany might receive any leniency in post war negotiations. She displays her credentials, her irrefutable losses, but recounts the moment in which her knowledge of German was put to good use. It was a death scene: one in which she hovers over a dying “Hun”, apparently taking in a confession that fights against the man’s final breaths. In the meeting, unlike the earlier scene, Vera discloses the content of the man’s thoughts: a plea for forgiveness from a former sweetheart; a moment of redemption that equalizes friends and enemies.

Vera’s memoirs, written in sequence in the post-war years, were a testament to the realities of war, highlighting the ways in which women are changed by war.

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