Thoughts on Testament of Youth
On Mon 12 Jan we held a special preview of Testament of Youth, a timely adaptation of Vera Brittain's much-loved World War I memoir. This powerful story of love, loss and war – not to mention a brilliant ode to one of our greatest pacifist thinkers – struck a chord with the full house, so we thought we would share some of the diverse opinions and thoughts we've already collected and also let you know how you can get involved and tell us what you think.
The preview was an emotional experience and opportunity for many in the crowd for reflection - we captured some of these on vox pops after the screenings. From those revisiting the story after having read the book decades ago, to those hearing Vera’s moving tale for the first time and their thoughts on modern day conflict, hear a range of thoughts in our short video:
Local writer Sian Norris was in the audience at Testament of Youth's preview, and she had a profound personal reaction to the film. Here it is below – thank you Sian for taking the time to share your words with us.
It's the morning after watching Testament of Youth and I am trying to figure out how to write my promised response to this powerful film that so cleverly portrays the brutality of war, the heaviness of grief and the potential for hope, through its use of claustrophobic cinematography and an extraordinary performance from its star, Alicia Vikander.
Before watching the film, I had planned to write something about women's stories. During the centenary year, so much of the focus of WW1 narratives was on men – the men who fought, the men who died, the men who survived, the men who led men to their deaths, and of course the men on the other side of the barbed wire fence. It is vital we hear these stories.
However, women's stories and voices often felt absent in 2014. Sometimes it feels that our most enduring vision of a WW1 woman is the flirt with her white feather. The women who, like Vera, nursed at the front, the women like Dolly Wilde who drove ambulances, the women who grieved at home, the women who worked and campaigned – their stories are not so often heard.
Testament of Youth – both the book and the film – provides a rebuke to that. This is categorically a woman's story, with an incredibly brave and self-determined and passionate woman at its heart. Vera can be seen as embodying all the narratives given to women in WW1 and a few more beside.
But when I watched the film I realised I wanted to write something else.
There’s a scene in the film where Roland, Vera's fiancée, returns from leave. The other men have yet to go to the front, they haven’t seen what he has seen. Vera is raging because he won’t tell her what he experienced. He is raging because he doesn’t believe anyone can hear what he has experienced. He can’t speak it, because how could anyone at home possibly understand?
This scene got to me.
There was a lot of war in my family. My great grandfather and his two brothers fought in WW1 and all survived – physically. Who knows about emotionally, who can tell how they survived once they returned home. I have a photo of them, all in their uniform. Their faces are both serious whilst smiling. They look proud.
Almost immediately after my parents married, my father went to war. His ship was sunk and he was rescued. Many weren't.
I watched this scene between Roland and Vera, and I thought about the men in my family and how difficult it must have been to return and feel that no one can understand what you have seen. What you have been through. And how that dissonance exists between the joy of return and the horror of what you have left behind. I thought about all the men who came back with this burden of silence, and the impact their silence had on their lives and the lives of the women around them.
So that is my feminist, familial, response to this extraordinary film which tells the story of an extraordinary woman who lived in, as the proverb says, 'interesting times'.
Testament of Youth will screen for at least two weeks from Fri 16 Jan, and there are many ways for you to get involved. After you see it, ask yourself: how did Testament of Youth make you feel? What would you do if you were in a similar situation to Vera? Has the film changed your views on the war, and does it have anything to tell us about today? We want to hear what you have to say, and we want to share your contributions – this is all about a conversation.
For those of you who prefer informal discussions, head over to our Conversations About Cinema event in the Café/Bar on Wed 21 Jan from 20:10, where the University of Bristol’s Professor of Film Studies Sarah Street will lead a discussion on the film and its themes.
If online is more your style, our Cinema Curator Mark Cosgrove and Tim Cole, Professor of Social History at the University of Bristol will lead a Twitter Chat on Tue 20 Jan from 18:30 – 19:30. It’s easy to get involved – simply use the hashtag #convocinema to share your thoughts, questions, and comments.
And of course there’s always good old fashioned pen and paper - just scribble down a thought or two on one of our comments cards and post it on the noticeboard or share your thoughts on Twitter more widely – simple use #convocinema or @wshed and we’ll hear you.
Testament of Youth is part of Conversations About Cinema: Impact of Conflict, a six month UK-wide programme of films, events and online resources around the repercussion of conflict and the many ways this has been presented on film. Head on over here to find out more about the programme and keep your eyes peeled for a dedicated website full of lots of material for you to mull over. In the meantime, why not listen to our January Podcast, where Mark and Tim expand more on the programme and the titles coming up later in the month.
Conversations About Cinema: Impact of Conflict is a BFI Film Audience Network initiative led by Watershed with QFT and Chapter Arts in Wales. Supported by the BFI's Programme Development Funds from the National Lottery.