Saturday, 31 January 2015

29 January, 2015 Testament of Youth (2014) ****

It doesn’t matter how many times or in what way the events are portrayed, the sheer horror and brutality of the First World War always seems to take one’s breath away. That’s not to say that all warfare isn’t horrific and brutal, but what makes the Great War so poignant is that the technology of mass destruction had arrived almost without most of the general population knowing or noticing.

Not only did those hundreds and thousands of young men march off in gung-ho fashion without any comprehension of what awaited them, but even as they began to return maimed and emotionally crippled there was a disconnect between what was happening in France and life at home. It was largely due to artists, poets and writers such as Vera Britain that this veil of ignorance slowly began to lift. What made her account tmore vivid and remarkable was firstly, that Vera was one of very few young women who saw the horrors at first hand on the battle field, and secondly, that she made no attempt to hide the sheer incompetence and inhumanity of those in command that led them to regard human life as being of such little value.

For the participants this sudden lurch from the idyllic to the nightmarish is captured well. The first three quarters of an hour is pure Merchant-Ivory as the middle classes of England live their sumptuous lives in cashmere and white flannels, moving effortlessly from private school to Oxbridge with the occasional game of cricket or tennis on the way. Vera wins a place at Somerville (which seems to scandalise just about everybody: an educated woman – the very idea!) just as the Archduke is assassinated. It is not long before she has abandoned Oxford to train as a nurse. As she treats the casualties that arrive back in London she begins to get some inkling of what is actually going on in France. When her brother, Edward is posted to France she volunteers for a field hospital at the front in order to be closer to him. At which point the mood of the movie changes dramatically.

Alicia Vikander, besides being very beautiful, has that ability which good movie actors have to act with the eyes. Director James Kent makes the most of this and makes liberal use of the close-up. This works well in the scene where Vera sees for the first time the mutilation and butchery in the ill-equipped field hospital. And later when she begins to comprehend the sheer scale of loss of life and the inability of those on the home front to undertsand it.

Vera Brittain became an ardent pacifist and yet powerful as her testament was, it wasn’t enough to prevent the world from going to war again twenty years later. And as the slaughter continues day after day somewhere on the planet, movies like this that remind us of the futility and pointlessness of it still need to be made and watched. But they need to be well made - and this one is.

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