Testament of Youth - the recently-released 129-minute cinematic adaptation of Vera Brittain's memoir (of the same title) -- manages to faithfully compress the 660-page (small print) Penguin Classic. VB's intellectual lusts, incipient (instinctive) feminism, and maturing pacifism are sounded amid the telling recreations of World War I Britain and France.
The film may well garner Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design; maybe Best Actress in a Leading Role; and, quite likely, Best Adapted Screenplay.
Prepping for a literary life Young Vera is strong-headed and intent on grooming herself (without a groom) for the life of the mind and the pen, at Oxford University. She admits to being "caught up" in herself. Her intense tutor-less preparations for the Oxford entrance exam (which required an essay to be written in Latin) might not be wholly relatable to the generation that has been prepping for SAT and ACT exams with manuals and CDs that provide informed test-taking strategies and sample exams. Still, her fierce resolve may resonate with some high-performers.
And yet I wonder, even if the film gets wide distribution, whether the memoir (subtitled An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900 to 1925) will be added to the curriculum of many schools -- outside Oxford and some feeder institutions. I wonder if the memoir's grandiose literary references are widely relatable.
The memoir's many -- many! -- references to, and quotations from, philosophers and poets can be off-putting.
However, a keen sense of the growing disillusionment with how "the war to end all war" was being waged is brought home by leaping past the pretentious invocations and by scanning to the war-time letters from Vera Brittain's suitor, Roland Leighton.
In 1914, Leighton gave up his place at Oxford so as not to miss his generation's opportunity for glory and honor. Glory, he soon discovered, was quite illusory. Instead, there were so many pointless sacrifices by the unprepared who were fodder to ill-conceived and misdirected engagements.
Courtship by penmanship and chaperone
Vera and Roland's courtship seems to have been largely epistolary. A number of the fountain-pen-on-parchment exchanges include their own ink-well-dipped poems.
If I'm not mistaken, Leighton's quite moving poem "Villanelle" ("Violets from Plug Street Wood..." - written as he surveyed a World War I battlefield) is recited in full in the film.
The poem opens a chapter in the memoir, and its recitation is an affecting moment in the film whose seriousness of purpose is relieved, briefly, in scenes involving a chaperone, who takes her sentry duty quite seriously. Vera's one-to-one meetings with Leighton are scrupulously monitored. The couple's G-rated attempts at evasion are somewhat amusing, as are the chaperone's chases and chastisements. But the chaperone has a heart. The perils to be encountered at the front become more and more apparent. Newspaper columns list the already fallen -- there are pages, and pages.
In the memoir chapter titled "Learning Versus Life" -- which is opened by Leighton's "Villanelle" -- Brittain quotes from one of her 1915 journal entries: "I could not know how soon the time would come when we should have no more hope, and yet be unable to die. Roland's letters - the sensitive letters of the newly baptized young soldier, so soon to be hardened by the protective iron of remorseless indifference to horror and pain - made the struggle to concentrate no easier, for they drove me to a feverish searching into fundamental questions to which no immediate answers were forthcoming."
Losing herself -- finding her voice - in caregiving
The memoir is redeemed in its descriptions of the sights, smells, sounds, and duties taken on by V. B. and other Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses in war-time London hospitals, and in field hospitals in Malta and France.
In its recreations of the makeshift hospital huts that received wounded directly from the casualty-clearing stations at the front, the film delivers what Vera Brittain wanted Britain to realize.
She wanted those who promote war to see what she saw, to touch what she touched, and to hear what she heard, as she sponged trench mud, battlefield debris and piercings from horribly punctured and torn-up bodies.
A most compelling 50 seconds of the film is a pan of the muddy terrain adjacent to the huts serving as field-hospitals. The camera shot becomes wider and wider - to take in rows and rows of stretchers, and still more rows of stretchers, and still more, all bearing grievously-wounded soldiers.
On his initial deployment to France, Leighton had tried to comfort Vera by saying (as so many thought, or at least hoped), "It could all be over in just a few months."
At his son's deployment, Vera's father had a more realistic, baleful take: "Wars are never short - never fast."
Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900 to 1925 is not short. It is not a fast read. The memoir is a long, protracted engagement; a prolix battlefield, mined with sonnets, elegies, hymns, and music scores, along with sententious letters and self-conscious hyper-intellectual diary outpourings.
The film may well prompt book sales - certainly the memoir is in demand at public libraries. But because it is so stocked with overlong run-on sentences of high (pretentious) intellectual caliber, I wonder if the book's messages about going to war unprepared will get a wide signal.
And yet, I am reminded of what U. S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in excusing unpreparedness: "As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."
Rumsfeld also explained, "There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know."
Imagine what Vera Brittain (who died in 1970) would have made of such "known knowns."
Images from the film are copyright BBC Films and Heyday Films. All rights reserved.