Article by Ceri Wheeldon
When I was invited to a private screening of Testament of Youth with a Q&A beforehand with Baroness Shirley Williams I jumped at the chance .
The film is an incredibly moving account based on the book and letters by Vera Brittain (Shirley’s mother) of her experience during World War One and the impact of the war on her and her family, the losses suffered and her experience as a nurse on the front line.
Vera was an incredibly courageous young woman – very much here own person, who went against everything that was expected of her at the time by her parents and society. Brought up in an environment where her expected role was to ‘marry well’, she fought first for the opportunity to go to Oxford- where she was determined to broaden her education in order to become a writer, and subsequently a nurse, where she could contribute to the war effort to support in some way those she loved who had gone to fight.
The art of letter writing
In the Q&A Baroness Williams talked about how the letters which formed the basis of her mother’s book (and the film) are still in existence – and how letter writing was a key part in communicating and sharing thoughts and events on life. With letters being delivered within hours at that time as opposed to days, it was also a far more immediate way of communicating, with letters typically being 5 pages long. Far more in depth than the texts and emails we send today!
It was also an era where men did not talk about their experiences when they returned from the war – the expectation was that they would return and simply get on with life, so the content of letters was often the only way a glimpse of what life at the front line was really like.
The first World War was also changed society forever. The class system was effectively broken down – during this war, the officers were all privately educated – most from the top public schools. They were given 3 months of officer training and sent off to the front to lead. Women now had more options open to them other than marrying ‘well’.
Baroness Williams thought the actress, Alicia Vikander, playing Vera really captured the spirit of her mother. You could see that Vera was a young woman who ‘owned’ herself and did what she thought was right for her – irrespective of what others thought she should do.
The film is beautifully shot. The film was incredibly moving – there were more than a few tears in the audience. For anyone who missed it the film is now available on DVD.