Thursday, August 11, 2016

Testament of Youth

We watched a film on DVD the other day that I had wanted to watch for some time, Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of the same name by Vera Brittain. I knew it would affect me deeply, the way the Spielberg-Hanks production of Band of Brothers did. It would be a riveting, emotional experience; it would be hard to watch. Having come across the story of Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton while researching my own book, Charles Sorley's Ghost, and then having read Brittain's book, I was prepared. I thought. The story is set between 1914 and 1918, when Great Britian was locked in the deadly struggle known as World War One. Brittain, a young woman of some privilige, is locked in the struggle to be more than just an ornamental female, when the war breaks out. Her fiance, Leighton, her brother and another close friend all go to war while she shifts her focus, trying to do something useful back home. She becomes a nurse. The story unfolds from her point of view, which is powerfully effective storytelling. We've seen plenty of front-line stories. Seeing the impact of war on the home front adds dimension to the drama of war. More than a British period piece or costume drama, the film is a slow-building emotional crusher that is poignant, beautiful, deeply sad but surprisingly unsentimental. It is also very close to the source material, and therefore mostly true. Its power is not in what happens – it is pretty obvious what will happen as you watch – but in how it affects Vera and the others around her at a time when soldiering was seen as a glorious duty. As the war drags on, the truth, that soldiery is anything but glorious duty, reveals itself horribly, terribly, tragically. Vera Brittain became a witness to loss. She spent the rest of her life railing against war. Too few have listened, but now's your chance.

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