The Battle of Brittain: James Kent's 'Testament of Youth' movingly adapts a WWI memoir

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Testament of Youth is a perfect testament to getting your act together before hitting the big screen. The film thrusts into deserved prominence a major new director, James Kent—not to be confused with the same-named “Downton Abbey” footman who lost his father to The Great War (although there is a kinship between the two Kents).

Based on Vera Brittain’s seminal 600-page memoir about her life and experiences during World War I—The War To End All Wars (only it didn’t)—the Sony Pictures Classics release is an epic sweep through those tragic, turbulent times when, exactly one century ago, its characters were paying the ultimate price of patriotism on foreign, rain-soaked soil.

“I’ve done a lot of television, obviously,” confesses the quasi-novice, arriving a bit silver-haired at this threshold, “but it is my first feature—reaching, stretching…”

Truthfully, he’s as surprised as anyone to find himself in a director’s chair, making a sprawling, complex, extravagantly expensive period-piece saga. “I never anticipated directing a feature film before,” he admits. “I mean, I wanted to do one, of course, but it’s a dangerous wish to have because it is always so hard to get a movie.”

Fortunately, Kent’s past work on documentaries and mini-series spoke volumes to producers Rosie Alison (The Boy in Striped Pajamas) and David Heyman (the Harry Potters and Oscar-winning Gravity), who had the clout and cash to try an unknown. “They saw in my work—a combination of my dramas about strong women and my documentaries—a coalescing of two strands that work perfectly for Testament.”

The result is the rarest of cinematic birds—a war film about women—and just maybe the best of that limited breed. “Fifty percent of the population is normally cut out of war films. It’s all about machismo, which is like an advocacy for war. Our film says, ‘War is a dangerous thing,’ and women feel that acutely—they’re mothers, sisters, daughters. They are emotionally more connected to their men than men are to themselves or each other. I think a loss of a mother far outweighs any other kind of suffering on Earth. That’s a very powerful constituency to make a war film about.”

Few combat films have focused more than casually on females. Ginger Rogers in Tender Comrade and Goldie Hawn in Swing Shift held down factory jobs while their men were away at war, and even Claudette Colbert did “guest welding” in Since You Went Away, the genre’s juggernaut which producer David O. Selznick referred to, with some cause, as “the four most important words since Gone With the Wind.”

Selznick, who adapted this “story of the unconquerable fortress—the American home, 1943”from the letters of a wartime wife, had a pronounced penchant for literary classics, so it’s possible he borrowed a page or two from Brittain’s 1933 bio and applied it to Colbert’s first-born, Jennifer Jones, who lost a lover to World War II and took up the arduous job of nurse, putting returning soldiers back together again.

Brittain’s case, as truth often is, was even grimmer. Virtually every attractive conscripted man who crossed her path marched helplessly off to a premature, unnecessary demise. In desperation to do her bit, she withdrew from Oxford and joined her male comrades at the frontlines as a nurse, once finding herself in the odd, if human, predicament of caring for dying German soldiers fresh from the field.

“I think people find it very shocking that all of them die,” Kent observes, “but that was the truth. They all die, but they’re all with her still in thought, particularly her fiancé, Roland. She never forgets him. She always wore the dried flowers he sent her from the front—those violets—in a locket around her neck for the rest of her life.”

Aside from the fact that it marks the centenary of the First World War, was there a reason Kent felt compelled to make this movie now? “Well, the story’s timeless, isn’t it? We’re always at war. We can’t stop ourselves being at war. Vera was against recklessly embarking on war. When you think of Iraq or even Vietnam, you wonder, ‘Was that a necessary war?’ A hundred years ago, young people were different. Today they are depoliticized. They think protest is a kind of angry comment on Facebook—but, really, protest is about going out there and shouting your protest and making sure your elders hear you. Elders tell young people, ‘Everything’s essential. Going to war’s essential.’ They’ve been telling every generation for hundreds of years that this war is the one war we all need to fight, and normally it’s not. So I would say to young people, ‘Distrust your elders.’ I think at this point, after 2008 when elders fucked the world for young people and now young people can’t afford property and they have the highest rate of unemployment, they need to get back on that high horse and say, ‘Hey! Listen to us!’  And that’s what Vera said. She said, ‘Listen to me. I’m 22 now. The war is over, and I have something to say.’”

Considering its literary standing, it’s surprising that it took the movies 80 years to realize Testament of Youth. In 1979, there was a five-episode BBC mini-series that won five BAFTAs, including Best Drama Series and Best Actress (Cheryl Campbell, who played Vera). “I watched it reluctantly,” Kent confesses. “It’s dated, production-wise, but the performances are great and it was a big hit in the U.K.”

If there is one contemporary movie that Testament of Youth brings to mind in terms of its spectacular surge of war and romance (with war steadily winning), it’s the one that put director Joe Wright firmly on the cinematic map, 2008’s Atonement. Interestingly, its Oscar-nominated teenage star was first in line to play Vera when Kent came aboard. “Saoirse Ronan was attached, and I met her,” says Kent. “She’s wonderful, but, as does often happen, she was attached to another film—Brooklyn, and that came forward suddenly and cut right across our shooting dates, so we scratched our heads in a rather worried fashion and thought, ‘Who else is around who is young enough and capable enough of holding a movie where she’s in every scene?’”

Enter Alicia Vikander, a budding young Swedish actress, to play the definitive British heroine, Vera Brittain. The film’s cinematographer, Rob Hardy, who photographed her as a robot in Ex Machina, may have put in a word to cinch the deal, but Kent made a point to see her Princess Caroline in Denmark’s 2013 Oscar contender, A Royal Affair, and in the smallish role of Kitty in Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina. “Those were the two things that I looked at, and then I met her for dinner, and she had all the qualities of Vera. She’s formidable, strong, centered, extremely focused. I have a theory that it was because she was a ballet dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet at the age of nine. You have to be pretty independently spirited. Also, she has this very searching look, which is like a geological lair. You hold a close-up on her to see her candor, and you get to see all these things happening, and she’s not even saying any damn thing. She’s just looking and worrying or grieving.”

It’s a luminous, heartbreaking performance, and it is surrounded by a cluster of dashing British up-and-comers. “Except for Alicia, the cast is all British, and what’s lovely about that is that you have the older generation—the Emily Watsons and the Dominic Wests and the Miranda Richardsons—along with these young actors who are just blossoming—Kit Harrington [aka Jon Snow from “Game of Thrones”], Taron Egerton [from Kingsman: The Secret Service] and Colin Morgan [of BBC’s “Merlin”].”

The movie keeps the combat to a minimum, focusing instead on the carnage afterward. One memorable crane shot rises over a frontline hospital overflowing with casualties and reveals acres of wounded in the backyard. It’s a flagrant, and loving, steal from the Atlanta rail-yard scene from GWTW, and Kent has no apology for it. “I was aware of borrowing that shot. I shouldn’t say it, but I was—but hey, look: All directors magpie off other directors. It just felt like a good way of organically showing the scale of massacre because, without that scale, you wouldn’t understand why Vera is so angry that there are so many dead.”

GWTW didn’t have to luxury of CGI, but Kent did. “We only had 40 background artists. With visual effects, we can move the 40 around and then they composite it all together to create one massive field. As long as they move differently each time you move them, when you composite it, it looks like everybody’s an individual.”

Kent’s sense of lavish, immaculate moviemaking is inherited. Basically, it’s what happens when you watch too many David Lean movies. “I adored David Lean! How he turned out one classic after another was amazing! Brief Encounter was a big influence for me here. It’s so romantic, but also so inside Celia Johnson’s head—the way the gossip fades out, the way she gets this internal voice of her own, the way Lean holds onto her close-up with those beautiful eyes. That felt very true to what I wanted to do with Testament of Youth. It’s a very interior monologue that Vera experiences, and I actually went further and visualized these memory flashes. These became, for me, a way of illustrating her thought process, so you feel it’s her film.”

Kent’s favorite review of Testament of Youth—to date—has come from Dame Shirley Williams, the only surviving child of Vera Brittain. She’s a formidable politician and 84 years old, and she came to see the film—a bit suspicious at first because she thought it would be turned into a Hollywood thing, and she didn’t want that. Instead, she absolutely adores this film and says she sees a lot of her mother in Alicia’s work.”

Kent is not sure what his next step will be—but it won’t be back into documentaries. “No, I think now that I’ve done that journey, although it’s always tempting because it’s a journalistic DNA that I have, I feel now—if I can, if people will allow me—I would like to stay in features.” He has a project in mind, and it will be another grand-scale tale of love and war. “It’s more after war,” he says, “but it features love.”