Testament of youth: Love and loss in the First World War

James Kent on the set of Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir about love and loss in the First World War.
James Kent on the set of Testament of Youth, an adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir about love and loss in the First World War.
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Vera Brittain’s memoir stands as a poignant and classic account of the horrors of war. It has now been filmed by Yorkshire director James Kent, who talks about the adaptation to Tony Earnshaw.

As a historian, pacifist, diarist and chronicler of the Great War, Vera Brittain casts a long and lasting shadow.

Testament of Youth, featuring Alicia Vikander.

Testament of Youth, featuring Alicia Vikander.

Her memoir, Testament of Youth, was an immediate bestseller on publication in 1933. Raw, brutally honest, unflinching in its depiction of the terrible cost of war and daring to bang the drum for peace, it established Brittain as one of the primary voices of her cause.

The book is both a time capsule of the era shattered by the titanic conflict of the Great War and a poem to the three men Brittain loved and lost: her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her would-be beau Victor Richardson and her younger brother, Edward.

It is said that Vera never truly recovered from Edward’s death in 1918. Following her own death in 1970, Vera’s ashes were scattered on his grave by her daughter, the politician Shirley Williams.

Vera was a trailblazer during her lifetime. After boarding school she went to Oxford University, where she studied English Literature. But aged just 21 she signed up to be a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. What she saw coloured her views for the remainder of her life and she would speak on behalf of the League of Nations, the Peace Pledge Union and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. She was a supporter of nuclear disarmament.

Vera’s liberalism and pacifist beliefs provided the core of an acclaimed television version of Testament of Youth in 1979, a BAFTA-winning five-parter that starred Cheryl Campbell and which received the family’s blessing. Then, in 2009, British producer David Heyman, one of the team behind the Harry Potter series, announced his intention to make a movie. The star was to be the Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. In the event the leading role went to rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander.

To direct the piece Heyman chose Yorkshireman James Kent. A veteran of documentaries on HG Wells, Gianni Versace, Philip Larkin and 9/11, Kent had segued into drama with The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister, shot in Yorkshire.

The 51-year-old son of the late Rodney Kent, a liberal councillor and former Mayor of Harrogate, Kent understood the politics that had driven Vera Brittain. Like her he was an Oxbridge scholar, having studied history at Oxford. After a summer internship at The Yorkshire Post he entered the BBC straight from university and joined the documentary department. Ten years ago he “hopped across” to drama and was in effect vetted for the job of helming Testament of Youth by first directing Heyman’s production of The Thirteenth Tale, a Yorkshire-set ghost story starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Crucial to the delivery of the movie was the approval of Shirley Williams who, says Kent, was “uncertain about the film”.

He adds: “She was anxious about two things: that it wouldn’t be as good as the television series, frankly, and also [it might be] a Hollywoodisation. So she read the script, as did her nephews, and she came to see it before we finished it. We wanted to make sure whether there were any changes that she wanted but she wanted none.”

As a first-time feature director, Kent was mindful but not overwhelmed by the enormity of the task facing him. His first duty was to read the source material as well as the other books that Brittain wrote.

“It’s important as a director that you just immerse yourself in any source material, and she did three books that were incredibly useful to me. There was Testament of Youth, Chronicle of Youth, which is actually her diary that she kept at the time; you’re getting a very ‘in the moment’ experience from that, and Letters from a Lost Generation, the surviving correspondence between Vera, Roland, her fiancé and Edward, her brother.

“And they’re very moving because you get the voices of very young people, 18-year-olds, the waiting and not having any news. And of course from all three you can then create the narrative for the film.”

It’s not just coincidence that the film has been made and released in the centenary of the start of the First World War. In a cultural landscape packed with books, TV documentaries, movies and radio drama Kent accepted that he had a mighty obligation to both Vera and the thousands of men who were killed or who came home maimed or gassed. You cannot understand Vera Brittain’s lifelong commitment to pacifism after the war, and the writing of Testament of Youth, unless you as an audience witness a touch, I would say, of the scale of horror she herself came up against once she actually went to the front.

“They were amputating without anaesthetic; there were mustard gas victims coming in in their thousands, and I felt there should be one moment where we get a touch of the scale of wounding, and [so I opted for a] big shot that shows you all the stretchers going on – hundreds of men.

“I wanted to not hold back on the mud, the squalor, the bandaging, the blood, the amputations. It was very important. That is her epiphany: where she sees the consequences of mass slaughter and maiming and, most importantly, where she actually nurses German officers and soldiers. And of course then she sees there’s no difference in them all being human beings.”

With screenwriter Juliet Towhidi, Kent pared back the wider story in the knowledge that he had just two hours to tell his tale, and not the four hours-plus that his TV predecessor had enjoyed.

The challenge was made simpler by the decision to trim the best part of a hundred pages covering the period when Vera was in Malta. Then there was the section covering the period after the war when she returned to study at Oxford and, later, her work with the League of Nations

“It was challenging [but] great chunks fell away rather easily,” recalls Kent. “What you do when you adapt a book like that is take lots of small incidents and create one scene. Nursing a German officer, a very powerful scene where he dies... she never writes that scene in Testament of Youth but she does write about treating lots of different men. But if you make it one pivotal moment you make your point and then move on.”

Kent made much of his movie in Yorkshire – in Leeds, Bradford, York, Keighley and near Scarborough. As a Harrogate lad himself he was thrilled to be able to shoot on home turf – even more so when the picture opened last year’s Leeds International Film Festival.

Part funded by Screen Yorkshire, the BBC and the British Film Institute, Testament of Youth also brings to the fore a gallery of young talent that includes Kit Harington from Game of Thrones, Colin Morgan from Merlin and Taron Egerton, soon to be seen in Kingsman: The Secret Service, as Edward. Alicia Vikander was the central heroine.

“Colin came in for his audition and was just sweet, tender, timid. He’s a follower, not a leader. The smallest moment of hesitation in his eyes can tell you a kind of fruitless yearning for this extraordinary young woman.

“Searching for Roland was harder because he’s a bit of alpha male and beta male. He embodies all of Vera Brittain’s qualities and standards. And Kit Harrington had never done a major movie of this type. He has a rather soulful and sympathetic view of the world that would make him a modern man in her eyes. He doesn’t think she’s aiming too high by wanting to go to university, and that would have been hugely attractive to a girl who’d been told, ‘Don’t go there. Stay at home and collect crockery’.”

Of 26-year-old Vikander, a supporting player in A Royal Affair, opposite Mads Mikkelsen and as Kitty in the Keira Knightley/Jude Law version of Anna Karenina, Kent praises her as “feisty, determined, artistic, forward-looking and luminous”.

“Alicia Vikander has a luminosity that transmits emotion. Quite often she’s not saying anything but you can see the quivering of her skin for the anxiety of not having heard from Roland. She’s got such wonderful qualities. And in the film she’s in every scene. It’s her film.

“To be honest she overshadowed the boys. She claims the film. It’s hers. And you need an actress who has that kind of cinematic presence. She reminds me a bit of another great Swedish actress, Ingrid Bergman – she’s got those big, round eyes. She can hold a close-up!” he laughs.

Launching his film in Yorkshire was “a huge deal” partly, he says, “because my roots are in Yorkshire but also because my family live up in Yorkshire so they could come, and it means a lot to them.

“And also because Vera was a northern lass. She was from Derbyshire, but let’s not be too particular. She loved the moors around Derbyshire, it was in her veins and she never gave up that love. So to be in a similar landscape to the world that Vera loved inspires a director and it really inspires the actors, as well. They feel the story in their bones. Yorkshire feels like Derbyshire to that extent and they said it really helped them. It was such a joy to be in Leeds, It’s lovely to come home.”

And Shirley Williams’ verdict?

“She just loves it. In fact she’s seen the film several times now. And she said, ‘It’s as good as the television series. It’s just for the modern age’. I thought that was the highest compliment we could get, really.”

• Testament of Youth is released on January 16.