‘Testament of Youth’ Director James Kent Captures Bloody WWI Memoir Starring a Swedish Meryl Streep
NEW YORK—Upon meeting with heretofore little-known but world-class-talented director James Kent, whose first film, “Testament of Youth,” will soon grace movie screens—the best word to describe him is “elfin.”
Slight of build, delicate of manner, with an excellent sense of humor, he is nevertheless an unflinching, powerhouse truth-teller, and a rare cinematic artist at the top of his game. He’d previously worked primarily in television.
He was chosen by the producers of “Testament” for his British Academy Award-winning, epic documentary work, especially one regarding 9/11 (for which he won an Emmy), as well as his dramas involving strong women.
The melding of these two vantage points brings a laser focus to the World War I memoir “Testament of Youth,” written by Vera Brittain and first published in Great Britain in 1933.
In “Testament,” he shows us the blood-soaked nurse work of one Oxford scholar, Vera Brittain, as she toils on the front lines and loses all of her nearest and dearest to the muddy trenches: her fiancé, a close friend, and her brother.
Brittain’s memoir was the original telling of this true, harrowing journey and is as well-known in England as teatime.
“Testament” features the incandescent Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, possibly a new Meryl Streep, in a role most young actresses would die for.
Vikander plays Vera as a slow-burning spitfire, buzzing palpably with the oversized writing talent of a visionary.
In a Nutshell
Gate-crashing the Oxford Latin exam, Vera didn’t get the memo about the written essay, so she dashes it off in German. Oxford doesn’t care; they know talent—she’s in.
Meanwhile, her brother’s best friend Roland, a handsome, aspiring writer, has won her heart, sliding love poems under her door. Sappy? Hardly.
We don’t often hear poetry recited in film (other than Shakespeare), but currently popular “Game of Thrones” actor Kit Harington (Roland) reveals himself as a refined, classically trained actor and subtly brilliant speaker of poetry.
The poems are golden, interwoven with director Kent’s exquisite nature photography and Rob Hardy’s overall lush cinematography.
War erupts. Roland (now Vera’s fiancé) and her brother (played by Taron Egerton, newly of “Kingsmen, The Secret Service” fame) sign up for what looks to be a brief skirmish.
Vera can’t sit in the library and study with all of that going on, so she puts the schoolwork on hold and heads out to the front to be of service.
What’s that mean? It means sawing off limbs without morphine. It means nurse forearms smeared with blood up to the elbows. Soldiers with more various and sundry body parts missing, lying for hours, days, on army stretchers in the cold mud and rain, waiting for a spot in the scream-filled barracks of hell.
Coming Full Circle
We generally only think of soldiers as returning from war with PTSD and thousand-yard stares, but the film opens with Vera Brittain stumbling through crowded streets to find refuge in a church. As clear a case of post-traumatic stress disorder as we’ve seen any actor depict, and it’s a revelation—that war nurses, of course, suffer mightily, and that Vikander can burn an image in your brain.
And so the war became both Vera Brittain’s curse and her blessing. As Roland says early on, of writing, writers, and Vera’s writing in particular: “Don’t you need some experience first?”
As Vera herself later wrote, “The most powerful story is the one I’ve lived.” And thus, 13 years after the war, in Kent’s words, “She wrote this iconic text.”
Kent considers his own outlook on life to be “spiritual but not religious,” believing we each have a voice, and that it is hardship that gives our lives a focus and a narrative that we wouldn’t otherwise have had, if we hadn’t suffered. Suffering is necessary.
“We’re obsessed with trying to keep our bodies going, for example. We’re distracted from savoring every moment.”
Therefore, in order to underpin this theme, the quality he most needed and happily found in Alicia Vikander was “centeredness.”
“I champion those who are pushed to the margins of history—women, gays, Jews—oppressed minorities written out of history,” said Kent.
“Vera Brittain was a pioneer for women,” he added. “She made a living as a journalist and novelist, was of the first generation to go to college, fought to be a nurse. She’s one of those women who changed the world. It’s a story of strength as well as vulnerability.”
In a scene near the film’s end, Vera Brittain is shown imposing her presence and hard-won war-veteran pacifist ideology on a crowd of British Nazi-haters—real demonstrating for a cause.
It stands in stark contrast to our current tendency to simply complain on social media as opposed to taking real action. As Kent says, “Facebook is the place where people express, passively, their objections now. Instead of getting out there, being truly outraged, and creating change.”
When the Epoch Times asked James Kent, “Where do you find the greatest joy?”
“Knowing time is not on my side and someone has given me a project,” he replied.
May the championing artistry of James Kent find the blessing of many more big screen projects given to him.