Testament of youth: Breaking free of the boilerplate

There comes a terrible moment to many souls when the great movements of the world, the larger destinies of mankind, which have lain aloof in newspapers and other neglected reading, enter like an earthquake into their own lives — where the slow urgency of growing generations turns into the tread of an invading army or the dire clash of civil war, and gray fathers know nothing to seek for but the corpses of their blooming sons, and girls forgot all vanity to make lint and bandages which may serve for the shattered limbs of their betrothed husbands.

Vera Brittain quotes this magnificent passage from George Elliott’s Daniel Deronda in her own great work, Testimony of Youth. It is of course the story of her generation and the catastrophe of the Great War visited upon them after a century of peace (if you ignore the horrors of colonialism at the periphery). She also says this in the book.

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think – which is fundamentally a moral problem – must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

One of the most iconic and haunting episodes of war, indeed of any time is the Christmas parties that broke out spontaneously – to the horror of the authorities – along substantial sections of the Western front in 1914. Those events stand for many things – most particularly the life-world, in all its fragility breaking out against the iron fist inside the velvet glove of civilisation – the organised forces of coercion and violence behind any successful mass social formation. Yet, by then it was too late. Any insight or inclination that those events stood for could not be turned to any material advantage to anyone and the soldiers were hounded back into the trenches.

I’ve been reading some of Ulysses S Grant’s autobiography and it’s notable how often he juxtaposes moral and physical courage giving the impression that they tend to substitute for one another: Lack of moral courage seems the norm, and it often exacts its price in the need for physical courage. In a world which is so often reduced to boilerplate prose, never less so than today when managers manage their brands, and their own personal ‘brands’, in which politicians of both sides gradually – nowadays rather quickly – disappear beneath the insincerity of their talking points, I loved this film for dramatising this dichotomy in our lives between life as the collection of the petty hypocrisies and insincerities that get us through a normal day and life as a creative and rational act. 

I think it was during the Great War as Bertrand Russell watched men march off to a war which had metastasised out of all proportion to its origins and said to Maynard Keynes that he didn’t fancy studying economics because he couldn’t take seriously a discipline that had as a fundamental axiom that people acted in their own self-interest.

When the likes of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon published their war memoirs, Vera Brittain was emboldened to write something similar but from her own perspective as a woman who had, like the men, subjected her own interests to the Greater Good only to come to wonder whether it was the greater good. As her lover, her friends and her brother went off to war, she suspended the Oxford education she had striven so hard for to try to do something for them. She went nursing the troops and in so doing went through her own hell, of bullying by other nurses who resented her superior station in life. And by war’s end she suffers the same kind of devastation as do the protagonists in the Great War books of the men. As the film proceeded I thought particularly of All Quiet on the Western Front which by the end leaves its protagonist destitute as one after the other his closest comrades are slaughtered in the trenches and the experience leaves him estranged from those previously closest to him who can never understand what he has experienced.

This is a large story and Testament of Youth is a large book. What to put into a film of less than three hours? What to leave out? The director gives you a pretty good idea of his priorities in the video above. But one of the things I can’t help noticing being left in is the farcical supervision of Vera’s courtship to Roland. She can only see Roland in society with a chaperone. So with young love breaking out, with all its potential for subversion – petty and otherwise – the couple are accompanied wherever they go in public by someone who may as well be their nanny, right down to the scene in which they briefly escape their chaperone’s gaze to seat themselves together at a show. But the chaperone catches up with them and by the time the show starts she has plonked herself between them. And that’s how a civilisation sleepwalked into catastrophe. Just as the chaperone with the iron fist turned up after Christmas Day 1914 to harass the troops back where they belonged – trying to kill each other from their respective trenches – so the nanny chaperone of Vera and Roland is there to ensure that nothing untoward breaks out. That’s much more sensible given the trouble to which one must sometimes go once it has broken out!

There are other fine things about the movie. I liked the casting of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as Vera. Luminous though not glamorised, her subtle distance from an ordinary British sensibility was entirely fitting for Vera who pretty obviously wasn’t your ordinary Brit. It gave her presence and her story a universality, somehow distanced from BBC costume drama which was entirely fitting for the simplicity, grandeur and universality of the story – even if it was co-funded by the BBC!)

There was another more personal reason I got a huge kick out of the movie. The screening was a special screening in Melbourne’s British Film Festival and took place some months before the official opening in London in the new year. I went because I expected the movie would be up my alley. I think it was also the last session of the festival and as such would be attended by the star Alicia Vikander. It wasn’t slated to take longer than a normal showing and there was no fancy price. So I went along to check it out. I’ve been to such a showing before and usually they have the star come out and do an interview after the movie. Not on this occasion. Alicia V turned up at the front with a microphone and was briefly introduced. Looking a bit lost she said this was the first time she’d have seen the movie so she was looking forward to it and the she popped up to the back of the cinema. The person introducing her said we could talk to her after the show was finished. And that was it.

There was no other formal session but Eva and I shuffled out along with everyone else, and there she was – next to us – shuffling out too. So we talked to her for a few minutes. She happened to be on location filming another film in Tassie. She was visiting her sister – who lived a few doors down from the cinema. She was up for the evening and flying back at 6 am the next day and had agreed to attend this movie before heading off to her sister’s place. Anyway, I told her I thought she was great. She was very nice, unassuming and seemed like a very centred sort of person – not much nonsense about her – though I may have been influenced by the previous couple of hours on screen where she carried all before her.

Then I tweeted this.

Just saw Film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth at the British Film Festival A masterpiece – see it if you can

Whereupon I got this tweet-back

JamesKentDir: @NGruen1 from the director thanks for that! James

So go and see Testimony of Youth when it comes your way – a film for the ages, delivered with the personal touch!

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Phil Clark
Phil Clark
9 years ago

Nicely worded Nic, I was effected the same way when reading All quiet on the Western Front. As a young boy at the time the inhumanity of war on the scale depicted was beyond me, still the portrait of human nature should not be judge by single part but by the counter points of the whole. Thanks for the heads up, on my list of must see movies.

9 years ago

Thanks – also worth a listen – lovely interview with Vera Brittain’s rather famous daughter and also her biographer