James Kent’s film about a great peace campaigner goes beyond the cliches of the trenches, writes Ed Power
THE shivers down his spine were a surprise. “I’ve made documentaries about very harrowing subjects, such as Auschwitz and 9/11,” says James Kent. “I’m quite used to separating myself from the traumatic nature of the material. This was different.”
We are discussing Testament of Youth, Kent’s greatly-heralded adaptation of the First World War memoirs of peace campaigner Vera Brittain.
The movie is Kent’s first as director and, while filming, he was struck by how forcefully he had begun to empathise with Britten’s tragic story a tale of love and loss against the backdrop of the Great War.
“When you work with actors as good as the ones we cast, you are going to be affected,” he says. “I was drawn in.”
Though Testament of Youth was commissioned by the BBC to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the conflict, Kent was careful to avoid Great War cliche: the rat-infested trenches, Tommies charging through no-man’s land.
He wanted to bring a fresh perspective rather than recycle stereotypes past their sell-by-date.
“The key image we have of the war are the trenches. People going over the top, Tommies in their thousands.
That doesn’t interest me. Vera is at home in England and she wants to know about the boy she loves, on the front line.
When you think of someone you are in love with, you aren’t focused on the bigger picture. You are thinking about them.”
While Brittain is not well known in Ireland, in the UK she is somewhat of a national icon, albeit one who has lately slipped towards obscurity.
Having lost several family and friends in the Great War, she became a passionate advocate for peace, though her stock diminished in the run-up to the Second World War, as her anti-violence message was conflated with appeasement of the Nazis.
She was also a trailblazer for women in education, overcoming the objections of her parents to study at Oxford — a struggle recounted in the movie.
“I went to Oxford and some of my fellow students were very big Vera Brittain fans — they talked a lot about her,” says Kent.
“There was, furthermore, a television drama about Brittain, which came out as I was a teenager [1979’s Testament of Youth]. I had vague memories of that.The BBC felt it was time to bring her to a new generation. The commemoration of the outbreak of the war has been a period of great national mourning. There was never a better opportunity to tell her story.”
Brittain is played by up-and-coming Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (perhaps best known to Irish audiences because of her rumoured relationship with Michael Fassbender).
“I had seen her in Anna Karenina and in a Danish film called A Royal Affair.It’s always a risk when you go for someone new. I went with my gut. We knew she had the emotional armour to make you feel for the character. One of the big challenges in movies is making people feel.”
Vikander dominates the movie, the camera lingering on her haunted gaze and expressive mouth.
“There is no doubt Alicia Vikander’s face is one that you would care about. I had no idea she would bring the level of intensity and microscopic detail to the performance that she does. You want to keep watching her, which is why I used so many close-ups. It’s funny — in television, directors there have a real anxiety about the close-up. In fact, it is one of the great cinematic shots. If you think about Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca… close-ups tell a powerful story.”
More problematic was the casting of Brittain’s beau, Roland. Kent looked at several actors and finally plumped for Kit Harington, already famous for playing Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.
The director was aware Harrington would bring a degree of Thrones ‘baggage’ — on reflection, Kent concluded, this might not be a bad thing.
“I thought the baggage would be good for the film,” he shrugs. “The movie doesn’t have many major stars. He, I thought, would bring his own audience. At the same time there was the issue of ‘the hair’.”
He sighs as he says this. Among those who care about these things, it transpires Harrington’s hair is a source of considerable fascination. For fans, the prospect of seeing the actor minus trademark locks was a huge novelty.
When images surfaced of Harrington sporting a byronic quiff on the set of Testament of Youth, the internet suffered a collective seizure.
“I was astonished,” says Kent. “Because fans saw his hair short, Twitter caught fire. They were Tweeting endlessly — ‘Is it really his hair?’
In the end, it was about his acting. We auditioned the part, saw a number of actors. He had that sensual, soulful quality which Vera Brittain admired.”
Coming from television, Kent understood directing a feature would present unique challenges. To a degree, cinema offers greater creative freedom — but requires a talent for politics also.
“It’s swings and roundabouts. As director of a film you have more control and status. On TV, the writer and the cast have very strong voices.
That said, with a film there are many more voices — producers, financiers, all of these people who want to make sure the project is on the right track. You need to be a diplomat. There’s a lot of gamesmanship actually.”
One surprise is the visual lushness of the film. In the early, pre-war scenes, especially, Testament of Youth is endlessly luxuriant. The costumes are beautiful, the period details gorgeously evoked. You could watch the with the sound off, letting the Edwardian opulence wash over you.
“It is sumptuous yet only to a point,” says Kent. “It is sumptuous in the early stages. As the film darkens, so the palette turns darker. By the time Vera Brittain gets to the western front, the whole thing has darkened quite a bit. The lensing is much tighter on the face and so forth. It turns very claustrophobic.”
None of this was by accident. “The beauty at the beginning reflects how beautiful life was for these youngsters: their world was full of promise, they were wealthy, lived in a beautiful part of the country.
"What the audience understands from the outset, and the characters do not, is that the war is coming. So there are a panoply of ironies. You know Vera Brittain is lost before she does. The sumptuousness is terribly bittersweet.”
Testament of Youth is in cinemas today
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