“Testament of Youth” (2015) occludes politics for romance

9 July 2015

I’ve got to maintain my blog silence in order to finish writing this damn book, but I saw Testament of Youth last night and have been spluttering ever since.

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Now, this is a very pretty and very sad film. And the first part of the film follows the real-life Vera Brittain’s memoir nicely — in which she fights her way into Oxford University against her father’s wishes, and along the way (against her own wishes) falls in love with her brother’s friend Roland — only to have war break out in 1914. As she remembered it later, the war initially “came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” She spent the war’s aftermath trying to come to terms with the meaning of that war and the multiple tragedies it unleashed. Testament of Youth remains one of the most powerful and important feminist/pacifist/intellectual reckonings of that era and that generation.

But this film focuses, instead, on how pretty these people were, and how sad it is when someone dies. Other than a brief moment at the end when Brittain (Alicia Vikander) speaks up on behalf of peace and postwar reconciliation at a raucous political meeting, the film skims over or skips everything that really mattered to the real-life Brittain — her relationship with Winifred Holtby, her agonizing efforts to make sense of the war, her political and feminist work — to a postscript that assures us that she found someone else and married in 1925.

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Oh, no no no, this film is all heartbreaking scenes at railway stations and all manner of men gazing at Vera longingly. That’s right: instead of a powerful political assessment, this film is simply a woman’s weeper, made for repetition on the Lifetime channel.

You can say that I was ruined for this film because I’d read the book. In fact, my very first induction into the magic of the BBC world of miniseries came in the early 80s when my mom and I sat ourselves down every Sunday night to watch the 275-minute version of Testament of Youth starring Cheryl Campbell. (Does anyone know how I can get that series on a region-1 DVD?) But even if I was a total novice to the subject matter, this film is empty of anything but aesthetic pleasure and pathos.

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This should have been the movie for me: a female lead! based on a feminist text! a period drama with great clothes! But no matter how many tears I shed during the screening, I found myself increasingly exasperated during the film’s final third to the point that my jaw dropped when it ended before any of what mattered to the real-life Brittain made it in.

I’ll give it this: the clothes are fantastic. Really, I wanted to run my hands all over those beautiful fabrics. But more problematic: it has the worst male lead ever. Kit Harington as Roland is facebook-thumbs-down.

Okay, back to writing things that result in book contracts, promotion, etc. Apologies for going AWOL, friends, but I’ve got to get some work done!

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14 Responses to ““Testament of Youth” (2015) occludes politics for romance”

  1. Becky Says:

    Long time no hear! Great to hear from you. Hope the book is going well. You can see the original on youtube, I think. Here is the link.

    No promises for video quality, but there you go.

    • Didion Says:

      Why didn’t it occur to me to look on YouTube? It doesn’t look great (and the new film is really beautiful if empty) but I might sit through all 275 minutes online anyway!


  2. Focusing on the romantic life of a female lead in a biopic seems to be a common theme. Your post reminded me of a discussion that I heard recently on BBC Woman’s Hour about the forthcoming film about the life of Gertrude Bell: despite many fascinating events in Bell’s life, apparently her love live is the focal point of the movie. But if these films were about male protagonists, I bet work/politics/career aspects would take centre stage!

    By the way, what’s wrong with Kit Harrington as the male lead? I haven’t seen the film and I hadn’t heard of Harrington before this movie was released. Is he a bad actor?

    All the best with your writing!

  3. Becky Says:

    Yeah, what was wrong with Kit? I thought he was one of the most sympathetic characters on Game of Thrones, and I thought he played the part well. Is he not up for a romantic lead?

    • Didion Says:

      He was badly miscast in this, I think — and doesn’t live up to the acting of Vikander. He just seems a bit overheated in all his scenes, and never really develops much of a romantic chemistry with her, which should have been about 80% of his job here. I sort of liked the soulful best friend better, played by Colin Morgan, with his huge blue eyes and big ears. He had more of the gravitas that Kit ought to have supplied in his role.

  4. Servetus Says:

    Glad you’re still alive. I think the success of Downton Abbey is going to lead to a revival of a sort of competitive Merchant / Ivory aesthetic in a lot of British media along the lines of “this is what we do best / like nobody else.”

    • Didion Says:

      I know, I know … the job took over my life, and I have enough to feel guilty about.

      I have no problem with the Merchant Ivory aesthetic. But they were usually able to include content beyond “war sucks.”

  5. katsully Says:

    Glad to read a post from you, even if it means you are neglecting your book.

    Your comments about _Testament_ made me think of _The Theory of Everything_, which ‘though a lovely film with a nice performance by Eddie Redmayne really gave short shrift to Jane Hawking’s work and life, outside of the relationship to Stephen. I wanted more about her life/struggles, not just filtered through Redmayne’s presence on screen. I wanted her character arc, not his.

    I am very much looking forward to _Suffragette_, though.

  6. katsully Says:

    Oh, and are you going to blog about Asante’s film, _Belle_?

    • Didion Says:

      I thought about it when I saw it — it suffers from some of the same problems, doesn’t it? “Let’s slip in a little gender/race criticism into the sweet, sweet sugar of romance!”

      Both films make me sad about the state of period drama. It’s as if we’re being told by these film execs and writers that we’re all so feeble-minded, such fools for love, that they don’t need to work very hard on much other than the costumes. Where’s our contemporary North and South, that magnificent retelling of the Gaskell novel, that did such a nice job with labor and the problems of 19th-century capitalism, even as it had to wrestle with Gaskell’s own naivete on those issues? I’d like to see one of these films have a bit more strength to tackle issues beyond a sweet love story.

      • Orlando Says:

        I thought the focus on the relationship between Dido and Betts did a lot to rescue it from that. Also, if you reflect on the pacing, Dido spends comparatively little time in the film thinking about her potential love for whatshisface. Most of her screen time is spent pondering the perplexing nature of the rules governing the British class system, and negotiating what kind of life she could possibly make for herself within it.

        Is the brand new Aussie flick The Dressmaker due to get a US release? You’re in for a treat, if it does.

  7. JustMeMike Says:

    Nice to see the blog has some temporary new legs – and even if I not heard of this film and probably won’t see it –

    If your book tour reaches this far south, kindly let me know. Tks.


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