Testament of Youth
by director James Kent
I first heard about plans to turn the memoir Testament of Youth into a movie when my close friend Juliette Towhidi had coincidentally been asked to fashion the screenplay. We stood in her kitchen, and Juliette asked for my opinion on Vera Brittain's heartfelt testament of love, war and the importance of remembrance. We chatted over pistachios and a glass of wine and I quietly thought “Wow, I would do anything to direct that story!” I’m always drawn to women's stories. I like the battles they have to make their voices heard. History is mostly written by men for men but Vera's Testament of Youth is unashamedly the woman's view. Her drive, honesty and downright romantic passion leap off the page. Most of all we hear Vera's anger at the needless loss of all those beautiful young men with all that potential gone forever. She was a true pacifist. Who amongst us would willingly send our sons to war?
It took the courage of our producer Rosie Alison to appoint a debut film director. And so before I knew it Rosie and I had begun the unenviable task of casting this film with the handsomest, most talented young men England could offer! Step up Kit Harington, Taron Egerton and Colin Morgan: all of whom possess the necessary magnetism that Vera undoubtedly demanded from those she called “my three musketeers.” But how to find Vera Brittain? Who could hold this film together and project the profound complexity of our heroine? After all Vera is in every scene and she faces enormous hurdles throughout. I had heard of this remarkable Swedish actress who had delivered a standout performance in a Danish film called A Royal Affair. Her name: 26-year-old Alicia Vikander. We met Alicia one evening for dinner in London. Her fierce intelligence, hunger for challenge, in depth research on Vera's life, not to say extraordinary movie star beauty—well, we knew we had found a remarkable actress for our heroine.
As we filmed across the country from stunning Derbyshire to monumental Oxford University and on to the trenches of France, I watched Alicia transform into Vera. It is a wonderful process, witnessing such gifts delivered, day after day, by an actress whose whole being seems to communicate luminous emotion. But the real test of how faithfully we had captured Vera came only after the film's completion. As the cherry blossoms fell last year we sat in a screening room alongside Vera's only daughter, the distinguished British politician, 84-year-old Shirley Williams. That's a nerve-wracking moment for the filmmaker, I can tell you. What would Vera's daughter, her own flesh and blood, make of the film? The lights came up and Shirley sat there. She was weeping. “I was so afraid. But then I actually saw my mother on screen. You have managed to renew Testament of Youth for a new generation.” I believe there could be no better compliment to our filmmaking efforts. Vera's young men live on. After all that is why she wrote her memoir. How happy Vera would be—knowing that almost 100 years later you are also about to share in her incredible story.