How Vera Brittain Won Her War: The Making of a Legendary Pacifist

The Daily Beast

June 4, 2015

At the party in West Chelsea’s Hotel Americano after the New York premiere of Testament of Youth on Tuesday night, its star Alicia Vikander was gossiping with guests alongside her boyfriend, Michael Fassbender.

The film’s director James Kent, in sharp black-and-white tux, was proudly, if nervously, contemplating a mostly positive set of reviews.

The World War I-set film is not a blockbuster—yet, at least. It will have a quiet first week of release this week, arriving on more screens as time goes on. While Testament of Youth has stirring and bloody battlefield and off-battlefield scenes, its focus is not men and war but the British pacifist Vera Brittain, played by Vikander, and the tragedies that shaped her.

Brittain is best-known—if known at all in Britain—for being the mother of Dame Shirley Williams, the redoubtable Liberal Democrat peer. But Kent’s brilliant film restores Brittain’s fame to its foundation—as the author of the World War I memoir of the same name, first published in 1933.

In Kent’s beautifully directed film, we move from the pastoral idyll where Brittain grew up in Yorkshire (and, as a Yorkshireman himself, Kent knows this landscape well) to the World War I battlefields of France, where Brittain went as a nurse, seeing many horrors and suffering the loss of both her brother Edward and much-loved fiancé Roland.

Kent has the good fortune of possessing in his cast two very hot-property young stars: Vikander, and Kit Harington, whose Game of Thrones contract stipulates he must not cut his hair. In Testament of Youth he wears a wig.

The film also stars Kingsman’s Taron Egerton, soon to take the title role in Eddie the Eagle, about the famous British Olympic ski jumper.

Testament retains the raw feel of Brittain’s memoir: First she succeeds in securing a place at Oxford University against her father’s more conventional wishes for her. Then, with the outbreak of war, she decides she must do something more active than learn amid the dreaming spires of Oxford’s Somerville College and goes first to London to become a nurse and then to France.

Testament of Youth is the iconic diary by a young woman who is undergoing a rites of passage and finally explaining the suffering of war,” says Kent. “Because it is written through a woman’s eyes, you get this incredible emotional honesty and passion.”

Brittain is also deeply feminist, before that was even a movement or word. Later in life she became a journalist, writing not just in favor of peace but also against colonialism. “Vera was of the generation that pioneered so many freedoms for women,” says Kent. “She was independently spirited, broke down the doors to college education, earned her own living but most importantly expressed her own voice through journalism and writing. It’s hard to imagine now just how rare that was—this is my grandmother’s generation—and how far we have come.”

In the film Kent wanted what he calls Brittain’s “powerful emotion” to shine through. “She had this candid, sometimes difficult personality,” he says. “But that is essential to understanding her—only through experiencing life could she truly find her voice. She lost so much and yet what you see and more importantly feel in the film is that only by losing could Vera discover her voice and her literary powers. It is as if the grief unlocks her and shows her the way.”

The war scenes themselves are epic and raw, and were also shot in Yorkshire. Kent was less interested in the trenches than the hospitals and wounded: “I was inspired in places by Gone With the Wind—there is something of Scarlett O’Hara in Vera—and specifically a huge crane shot that arches over this field of wounded soldiers that references Scarlett O’Hara walking through the wounded of Atlanta.

“We had a lot of amputees from the Afghan and Iraq wars, which was extremely sobering. But they loved filming, taking selfies with Alicia. At one point Vera crosses a courtyard and bumps into a nurse, and by slowing the frame down you see the background artist’s iPhone fall in the mud. So I guess Apple was around even then!”

The strange thing, says Kent, is that Brittain and her fiancé Roland Leighton, who was killed in battle, only physically saw each other for about 17 or 18 days.

“The war put paid to that,” he says. “I wanted to show the power of letter writing. They wrote almost every day, and how powerfully expressed their words were to each other. A lot of the shots are Vera and Roland looking at each other from the trenches to London. Vera was so passionate that she kept Roland’s violets from the trenches on a locket around her neck for the rest of her life.”

Almost the entire film is shot in Yorkshire. “I was born there and brought up there,” says Kent. “We call it ‘God’s own country’—so beautiful and varied, from the glorious beaches to the rolling hills and the stone walls of the Yorkshire moors. And it has these lakes which are only 8 degrees in March and where I sadistically put my actors in,” Kent laughs. “Of course, a little filming was done in Oxford, too, where I also happened to study. It’s like a massive film set. You don’t need to change a thing.”

Given the book’s status as an artifact, and a little-known one at that, Kent knew making a movie of it would be a challenge. “It was important to me that the film felt fresh for a new generation,” he says. “The most striking thing that I wanted to convey is the subjectivity of her writing. In the film there is a very strong point of view. It is entirely Vera’s story.

“I am pretty uncompromising about how often we are on Alicia’s face. That personal memoir tone was very important to me, and often I feel films are not subjective enough. I could see it as a film immediately because of that powerful female voice.”

Yet Vikander is Swedish, not British. Why did Kent choose her? “Alicia has the presence and power to hold a film from such a personal point of view,” he replies. “To be honest, as long as she could master the accent (and not be distracted by it) I didn’t care where our lead actress came from as long as she could inhabit Vera’s qualities. Alicia has an incredible presence—not just astonishing beauty but powerful emotionally honesty. Often I found I didn’t need words or dialogue. I had seen that quality in a Danish art-house hit she appeared in called A Royal Affair. Wow—just her face and those eyes, which are like pools of sorrow. I sincerely believe she would have made a quite extraordinary silent movie star.”

After the war, and after the heartbroken Brittain has recovered some mental stability, we see her giving an impassioned speech to a hostile, anti-German crowd about why it was important as a nurse for her to treat dying German patients, and why doing so led her to see them as humans facing similar trials and tribulations. But before her experience of war, Brittain was not a pacifist, says Kent.

“In fact, she argued hard for her father to let her brother Edward sign up,” the director notes. “What you have to understand is that pretty well everyone in Britain wanted war. They thought they ought to save Belgium (whom Germany had invaded) and that the conflict would be a done deal within a few months.

“It was the scale of loss that turned her into a pacifist. Vera is really like all mothers and sisters: ‘Send my boy to war only as a very last resort. Do everything you can to stop it.’”

Despite the success of Brittain’s book, and now Kent’s film, her life remains too lost in history. “I think it’s because World War I has been overshadowed by World War II,” says Kent. “Partly, too, so much has changed in 100 years it almost makes her a little unreachable. We think it was the 1960s that did all the heavy lifting for women and forget that the barriers had been pushed for decades earlier, by people like Vera.”

Later, says Kent, Brittain stayed uncompromisingly true to her principles, even as Hitler began his lunge for power. She was a passionate advocate of the League of Nations and traveled constantly on its behalf. “But owing to her passionate journalism against war-mongers,” he says, “Vera ended up on a Nazi blacklist of people who would be immediately executed after a Nazi invasion of Britain.”

Brittain married an academic called George Catlin, and “they had a remarkably free and open relationship,” says Kent. “I don’t think she ever got over losing Roland. Testament of Youth is her memorial to Roland, Edward, and the others.”

For Kent, Testament isn’t a “war movie.” “It’s a love story, so private, so singular to Vera—and it was to love stories that I turned,” he says. “The English Patient is a great example of love within war. My real hero is David Lean, and Brief Encounter was a big influence—all those scenes set in and around trains and that interior monologue that Celia Johnson has.

“I also wanted to give a few moments of the epic—enough to give the viewer some sense of the scale of massacre. Without that how could you ever understand the passion of Vera to try and stop that ever being repeated?”

To Kent, entering Vera’s mind was key to the film—visually as well as in its script. “That’s why you get these flashes of memory,” he says. “When we fall in love, and when we are bereaved, there are these iconic memories of the loved one that keep coming back. The camerawork is purposefully tight to Vera. In fact, the lenses get closer as the film progresses, as if we are locked into her psyche and thought processes. And the palette of the film gets darker, browner, grittier. It is as if all the color of the world is bleached out as the war and her battle intensifies.”

Brittain wrote two further Testament-titled memoirs, and was working on a final part when she died, aged 76, in 1970. Kent believes the blossoming of contemporary feminism around that time helped augment her reputation.

“In the 1970s women’s rights were fermenting, so understanding the history and pioneers of women’s rights suddenly felt very important,” says Kent. “All writers need to hit their moment, and this was Vera’s. Remember, too, that the Vietnam and Korean wars were going on. Perhaps even more important than that is the sheer, searing emotion in the book. You hear again and again how the reader is reduced to tears by her incalculable losses. And Vera certainly knows how to stick it to you. It’s extraordinarily honest and often very funny. She has an arch, knowing wit that comes through.”

Brittain’s principled legacy is most obviously visible in her only daughter, still very much alive, and very famous in the U.K. As Kent rightly says, “Dame Shirley Williams is a major political figure on the progressive left of British politics. And you can see Vera ingrained in her liberal views. She loves the film—she wept when she first saw it and has now seen it at least six times.”

Kent smiles. “I would have tea and biscuits in the House of Lords with Shirley. She’s very sweet, very benign—like your favorite grandmother—but tough as rock underneath.” When you see Testament of Youth, you’ll know where she got that from.