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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
15 January 2013
Could I be any less inspired to write this? Reason being that I watched this film within about 60 hours of seeing the amazing Zero Dark Thirty, which makes other films look lite.
A Royal Affair (En kongelig affære) is the Danish nominee for Best Foreign Film this year and should have Feminéma written all over it: a period drama! featuring Mads Mikkelsen! set during the Enlightenment! Oh, if only I could muster the enthusiasm.
It focuses on King Christian VII’s new English bride, Caroline Mathilde (Alicia Vikander, above), who arrives pre-married in a country she’s never seen before only to find her new husband to be simple-minded and easily manipulated by various handlers. She has an affair with the German doctor brought in to manage the king’s mood swings and erratic behavior. This doctor is a freethinker named Johann Friedrich Struensee (Mikkelsen) who sneaks in many of the radical French enlightenment texts banned from Denmark at the time, texts the new queen had taken pleasure reading while growing up in England. Inspired by high-minded ideals as much as by one another’s hotness, Caroline Mathilde and Struensee conspire to subvert the highly conservative Court and institute for the first time free speech, democratic protections of rights, access to education, universal access to smallpox inoculations, and benefits to the poor.
Was it that the genre-busting Zero Dark Thirty had ruined me for film? Or is A Royal Affair a highly romanticized, predictable piece of fluff — with only the extra layer of Enlightenment-era rights talk to give it a bit of fiber? I’d like to be generous, but I’m inclined to think that this is not worth the time and money when theaters are so crowded with great, Oscar-worthy films.
I’m still working on seeing the other Best Foreign Film nominees, of course. Everything seems to indicate that Michael Haneke’s Amour will be tough competition. Even acknowledging that I was in no shape to see such a film, I still maintain that this one is not a contender.
You will, of course, be forgiven if you want to spend $11 just to see Mikkelsen’s mouth and those haunted eyes for more than two hours, and the rest of him donned in eighteenth-century clothes — which he must shed for key scenes. Not to mention Vikander’s clothes and her perfect complexion.
Apparently critic Mark Kermode named this the best film of 2012. I do not understand how this can be the case, but hey, we’re all entitled to our opinions.