“In the last 4 years, my god, my king and my country have stripped me of everything I ever cared for.”
This eloquent BBC version of the stirring memoir, Testament of Youth chronicles the years 1913-1925 in the life of Vera Brittain–a feminist, a writer and also one of the 20th Century’s greatest pacifists. When the film begins, Vera (Cheryl Campbell) the daughter of a merchant lives in Northern England. Her brother, Edward (Rupert Frazer) is at school and he will soon attend Oxford. Vera also longs to attend university, but her parents consider that education is not a proper choice for females as it tends to make them mannish and unmarriageable. Encouraged by Edward, Vera begins attending local lectures while desperately nursing her ambition to attend Oxford.
Just as she manages to gain her parents’ permission to attend Somerville College, Oxford, WWI interrupts Vera’s life. At first she sees the war as a terrible inconvenience–a bother that looms distantly on the horizon, and a nuisance that has little to do with her. She is, therefore, shocked to learn that her brother and his best friend Roland (Peter Woodward) intend to volunteer. It’s beyond her comprehension that they should sacrifice a university education for vague notions of patriotism. But both Roland and Edward make it clear that war is an unassailable territory exclusively for males, and they express the feeling that they don’t want to left out of the ‘action’. To them–and their intimate inner circle–to not participate would mean they carry a “stain” for the rest of their lives.
Vera finds herself swept up in WWI. As the fiance of Roland Leighton, she sees him shipped to the front in France, and she also waves her brother goodbye when he too is shipped overseas. Vera finds herself unable to continue with her university education, and instead she volunteers as a nurse and is eventually transferred to the front lines. Here, she nurses wounded and dying Germans under the most horrendous conditions.
Scenes at the front and in the havoc of makeshift, overcrowded hospitals contrast with the time Vera spends at home on leave where her parents live stubbornly in a world of their own–complaining about the lack of good servants, the parsimonious food supply, and demanding that she return home to ‘help out’. But the film treats all its characters with generosity, and in time, it’s clear that Vera’s parents’ stance is just another coping mechanism. The film does an excellent job of showing how Vera is torn by conflicting demands in an era when women’s roles were severely dictated by society and yet also rapidly changing. Peppered with marvelously strong characterizations–including Winfred Holtby, Vera’s dearest friend, the powerful drama is accompanied by excerpts of Leighton’s letters and poetry.
This beautifully acted, brilliant adaptation directed by Moira Armstrong captures the raw power of Brittain’s memoir, and the fact that Vera’s story is true, makes the film (and the book) exactly as the title suggests–a powerful “testament” against war. Gradually, over time, Vera’s belief system is shaken to its foundations as her illusions of patriotism and the nobility of war are stripped away and replaced with anger, loss and grief. Vera struggles with futility and anguish as those she loves best become statistics in a senseless bloodbath.
Testament of Youth is a 4 VHS set, and in spite of the fact this is a production from the late 70s, the film is remarkably good quality. Details on this boxed set state that it’s 200 minutes long with each tape 50 minutes. But, this is a 5 part series with two episodes on the first tape, so in reality the film is about 250 minutes long. If you are at all interested in WWI, feminist figures or pacifism, then this first class BBC drama is well worth watching.