“If the war spares me,” wrote Vera Brittain to her brother Edward in 1916, “it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four.” In 1933 she published that book, Testament of Youth, and it went on to become one of the most powerful and successful memoirs about World War One. This year director James Kent is making his feature film debut with that story. Starring Alicia Vikander as Vera alongside Kit Harrington (Game of Thrones), Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan (Merlin), Testament of Youth is set to move a new generation with its powerful story about the futility of war and its devastating personal cost. The Upcoming spoke to director James Kent and cast members Alicia Vikander and Taron Egerton on the red carpet at the film’s premiere at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square.
Colin Morgan (actor)
So this is your first feature film as a director, what was it about the Testament of Youth that made you decide that this was going to be the one?
I think the story of Testament of Youth is such an inspirational story about a young woman who wants to go to Oxford and then finds her life derailed by a major war. What does she do? She goes to the Western front and saves lives, loses lots of people she loves, still comes through and rebuilds her life better and stronger than before. That is such a lesson because we all have terrible experiences in our lives, but that is just the story of living. The main thing is that we move on, become stronger and wiser, and as a result we have more compassion, and that is what happened to Vera Brittain.
Vera Brittain’s story is so successful, and has been since it was initially published, what do you think it is that appeals to so many people and sets it apart from other World War One narratives, other than the fact that it is written from a woman’s perspective?
I think that the major thing about her is the quality of her writing in Testament of Youth that obviously permeates the film. It is so rich and emotionally deep, yet she sees it in a way that isn’t self-pitying. She wants to teach the world that war is a terrible a thing. We snuff out young people and we snuff out their potential, but who knows? One of them could have found the cure for Ebola or even become a famous pianist, but they are killed by war and we are never able to discover the incredible lives that could have been. She really has a major lesson to teach us all.
What were your main concerns in taking such a loved and richly written text and portraying it in the form of film?
One of my main concerns was that we wouldn’t capture the essence of Vera Britain – especially since so many people have seen the television show and read the book. Vera is this powerfully emotional, articulate, intelligent, and feisty individual, but you know Alicia Vikander has such wells of emotion yet she herself is pretty feisty, and so she portrays Vera Brittain as she truly was.
Has playing Vera, a woman who had to fight against the banality and limitations of female existence within contemporary society, changed your perception of being a woman today?
Definitely, I think that is what drew me the most to Vera and the book. She felt so much like a strong young woman of today and then suddenly you turn the page and you realise that she can’t even board a train without a chaperone. To see the journey that women have undergone in such a short amount of time was really a reminder what a difference it is in this day and age.
Does it make you feel blessed to be a woman in this day and age?
Definitely! But there is still a big fight out there for many other women who we should stand up for.
With that in mind, feminism was a big issue in the just passed year and young women need role models like Vera. What do you hope young women will take away from the film?
I think, to see someone who was able against all odds take her own future in hands even though everyone around her said no. She did it herself. She fought for her education at Oxford and then left that dream to become a nurse in the war, and then found her voice and was able keep those boys alive through her words. I think she is a remarkable woman who has inspired me by being so strong-willed.
What was it about the role of Edward and the story of Testament of Youth that made you want to be part of this project?
The thing that I love about him is that he such a soft and warm young man. He’s very gentle, he’s very humble, and there is something quite concealed and private about him that I love. What he’s concealing is alluded to in the film, and it is part of that struggle in him that I find particularly interesting and exciting.
Video: Sabiyha Rasheed
Photos: Dave J Hogan
Testament of Youth was released nationwide on January 16th 2015, read our review here