Friday, January 9, 2015

'Testament of Youth' (2014) directed by James Kent

With the economy in the shitter, the dismemberment of the public sector, the stage-managed collapse of the NHS and the revelation that the Britain military didn't so much fail in Afghanistan and Iraq as serve the countries up to Islamic extremists on a silver platter, it's not surprising that politicians latched onto the centenary of World War One like a drowning man clings to wreckage. "Waitaminute, now that everyone involved is dead and won't object, we can spin it into plasticky feelgood patriotism!"

And so the war, previously generally regarded as a monumental fuck up that gobbled up and shat out a generation, has been slowly rehabilitated into one of Great Britain's 'finest hours'. Shelves are stacked high with flag-waving deifications of 'our boys'; the poppy converted into symbol of military recruitment; and the brainmelting nihilistic horror of the Western Front being used by Sainsburys to sell chocolate.

Something is amiss. Something that Testament of Youth quietly aims to correct, presenting us with a World War I drama that's neither triumphalist nor militaristic. Adapted from the de facto documentation of the effects of the war on civilian populace of Britain, the film gradually draws us through an argument that begins with blind patriotic fervour and eventually settles at hard-won, intellectually grounded pacifism.

Our progress through the film mirrors that of its subject/author, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander). We first meet her existing in typical period drama romanticism; a group of model-perfect young, well-off intellectuals basking in a rural lake. The boys, Roland (Kit Harington), Victor (Colin Morgan) and Geoffrey (Jonathan Bailey) jockey amongst each other for her attention, doing the kinds of homoerotic things that young men in these kinds of films tend to. Meanwhile Vera is more focussed on bridling against gender restrictions; upset that her father (Dominic West) won't allow her to attend Oxford and would rather she settle down with a nice husband.

But for the war it wouldn't be too hard to predict where all this is going. When it comes Vera springs into lockstep with the propaganda; desperately trying to convince her father to allow her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) to sign up with the rest of the boys and march off to victory. The phrase "it'll all be over by Christmas" rings a happy echo, and with smiles, kisses and brocades of flowers, most of the male cast cheerily march straight into a meatgrinder.

As the strapping young men of the opening sequence dribble back from the front physically and mentally shattered she begins to reconsider her attitude. Studying at Oxford suddenly seem irrelevant in the face of such carnage, so she signs up as a nurse. Soon she makes her way to the muddy, chaotic field hospitals of the front line, where bits of what were once soldiers are shipped in on bloodstained canvas stretchers. Her duties here are apparently less to save their lives and more to give them brief comfort as they gurgle their last.

This never-ending parade of misery hardens Vera and forms the basis of her rock-solid postwar pacifism. If the film has done its job well then we should be right there alongside her, conscious of the true impact of war, angry at the political manipulations required for its birth and determined to do everything in our power to stop it happening again.

By this metric Testament of Youth largely succeeds. It's surprisingly tricky to make a genuinely pacifist, anti-war movie because, simply, war makes for attractive, seductive cinema. No matter the intended tone, the sight of huge explosions, fevered battles and extreme behaviour under pressure makes for exciting viewing. The upshot is that even purportedly antiwar cinema like Platoon, Apocalypse Now and so on are all too easily repurposed as recruitment campaigns. Sure, what you're watching is a crime against humanity, but boy what an exhilarating crime!

There's maybe two ways around this. One is to either head so far towards disturbing, grand-guignol violence that you alienate (and therefore restrict) your audience; a great example being Come and See: an amazing film, but not one that'll appeal to most people. The other is to focus on something less exciting.  This is Testament of Youth's strategy, keeping the front off screen and zeroing in on the effect of machine-gun bullet on human flesh, gas on eyeball and mortar explosion on brain.

As an argument it's smartly constructed.  As a film it's on slightly shakier ground. Vikander impresses as Brittain, keeping the core of the character intact as her beliefs shift under her. Kit Harington, an actor whose billing in a film generally makes the heart sink, also surprises by being actually pretty good in this (perhaps it's because he doesn't have a dodgy beard?). The supporting cast, boasting Dominic West, Miranda Richardson and Emily Watson among others, ensures the film maintains a rock-solid level of performance quality.

Visually it's a bit of a slog. The project was apparently first conceived as a BBC TV series, and all too often you get a sniff of these roots. There's a dryness and over-familiarity to the aesthetics, the notion that this is the same old period gear from the BBC's costume department you've seen trotted across countless prestige dramas. Director James Kent throws in the odd adventurous shot, but even though I appreciate the effort they fall a bit flat. In particular there's a visual quote of the famous crane shot from Gone With The Wind that sort of works, but feels a bit self-consciously 'clever'.

Also worthy of criticism is the film's focus on the perils of the middle-class. It was by a huge majority that the working class of Britain were massacred, so there's the odd moment where the troubles of an attractive yet conflicted woman caught in the heart of it don't  amount to a hill of beans.  But then you're adapting Testament of Youth, and I suppose the book is what it is.

Puncturing the rapidly inflating bubble of patriotic triumphalism building around the Great War is no easy task. You can be criticised for arguing the worth of the war and downright pilloried for raising the point that the average Tommy was perhaps too happily bamboozled into shipping out to shoot other human beings for no clear reason. In showing this process Testament of Youth, clad in the aesthetics and pace of mainstream Downton Abbey-ish period drama, is a quietly (and appropriately) subversive movie.


Testament of Youth is released 16th January 2015

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