Pools of gold

James Kent reflects on Testament Of Youth.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Testament Of Youth stars Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington with director James Kent
Testament Of Youth stars Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington with director James Kent Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

James Kent follows up on the Testament Of Youth, based on Vera Brittain's World War I memoir, the day of Interview Magazine's première, on and off the red carpet with Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington. We connect Helen Mirren's costume designer, Consolata Boyle, with a Coco Chanel style dictum, he confides what getting Joanna Scanlan meant to him, turning Alicia from Ava in Alex Garland's Ex Machina into Vera, and coming on board with David Heyman, the producer of Paddington, Gravity, and the Harry Potter films.

Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) Edward Brittain (Taron Egerton) Vera (Alicia Vikander):
Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) Edward Brittain (Taron Egerton) Vera (Alicia Vikander): "Loving it with the boys."

The ensemble, including Miranda Richardson, Emily Watson, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Dominic West, Jonathan Bailey and Alexandra Roach contributes mightily to the impact Brittain's story continues to have. We begin on Armistice Day in November 1918. Vera (Vikander) flees from the crowds into a church. Her universe has drowned. In flashback, we see how different a place the world had been antebellum, a mere four years earlier. Kent's direction takes us and his heroine back to a time when the worst thing that could happen was to swim in a forest pond with invisible rats.

When Vera and her fiancé Roland (Harington) get together, they have to be accompanied by a chaperone. Scanlan's Aunt Belle takes on that role and with a single smile exposes the absurdity - soon all of them will be engulfed in the horrors of war, but a date is too dangerous for the young couple to face on their own? Vera, like her male friends, volunteers and heads to the front. She works as a nurse and gives up the "golden opportunity", as Miss Lorimer (Richardson), advisor at Oxford, calls it. Vera with her brother, Edward (Egerton), his friends, Victor (Morgan), Geoffrey (Bailey), and Roland, acquaints us with their hopes at Oxford, their dreams and writerly ambition in a peaceful idyllic countryside.

Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain:
Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain: "And she says 'it isn't just poems, it's who we are'."

Testament Of Youth neither downplays the suffering during the war nor revels in battle reconstructions. The devastation lies in pools of gold, and by reminding us of the sheer number of wounded and dead, Kent, in a shot of an improvised extended field hospital in the mud and another shot of the daily list of the fallen men, published in the newspaper, puts things in prospective for us.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your producer, David Heyman, had worked with you before? [In 2014, he received the US National Board of Review Award for Creative Innovation in Filmmaking.]

James Kent: Yes. I was hired for the film, but we knew it would take a while to get the money – if it ever happened at all. And he had this other project with his mother Norma [Heyman], who produced [Stephen Frears'] Dangerous Liaisons as a powerhouse. And he offered me that [The Thirteenth Tale], with Vanessa Redgrave. To make this television single film. I felt it was a little test for me. I don’t think it was, but I felt like that.

 Vera with Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson)
Vera with Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson)

So I wanted to make it as good as I could. It’s a lovely film. Also David was very involved in that film, very evocative in the editing process. So it was a great way of understanding him and learning from him.

AKT: His films are always about much more than they seem. I love Paddington.

JK: Yeah. They are always intelligent. Whether he puts that in or whether he finds directors who bring that or whether he chooses the subjects that have that. You look at Harry Potter, which was obviously already a novel. He never cheapened the material. He never does what Hollywood can do, which is sentimentalise it. He is not a sentimentalist. He believes in being true and actually he believes in being quite restrained. What he loves about Testament of Youth is that it's actually quite restrained. The performances are quite restrained and I think that's a real "David quality."

AKT: You are so restrained that you don't even show the rats in the pond.

JK: No! That's a joke.

AKT: I got that. It's such a great image, though, that the worst thing they could imagine at the time is swimming with rats in that water.

 Roland with Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan) and Vera:
Roland with Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan) and Vera: "She was perfect for Aunt Belle."

JK: I know. We needed a scene where Vera was at her most comfortable and secure with the boys. Loving it with the boys.

AKT: Alicia Vikander is your Vera. Many people right now know her from Ex Machina. Did she film that before your movie?

JK: Yes, they just shot that. She came off that.

AKT: That's quite a transition.

JK: Of course, I was unaware of it. I had no idea what the film was. I knew it was some sci-fi thing. In Ex Machina she plays a very different part and she's fantastic in it.

AKT: She is great in both. Another actress who is always impressive, although here she has a fairly small role, is Joanna Scanlan.

JK: Yes. Isn't she gorgeous?

AKT: She doesn't get an ending to her character. We wonder what happens to her during the war. Because Scanlan's performance is so good and goes so far beyond her function as chaperone.

Victor (Colin Morgan) with Vera:
Victor (Colin Morgan) with Vera: "So for her, all that grief, all that loss, none of that is good news but she deals with it."

JK: Vera [Brittain in her memoir] never says. She was married at the time and, I think, had a perfectly happy life. She comes across as a bit of a spinster in the film. You know, when I read that part, I just saw Joanna Scanlan. It's rare that that happens. I was delighted that she was free and able to do it.

AKT: Did you think of her performance as Dickens' wife? [in Ralph Fiennes' The Invisible Woman]

JK: I didn't. We already cast her by then before I saw that film. She was perfect for Aunt Belle.

AKT: Let's talk a bit about the costumes. I noticed Vera wears a lot of tassels.

JK: Oh? I hadn't noticed that.

AKT: I was wondering if there was a meaning behind that?

JK: Only a woman would see that. I have no idea. I love that. I'm going to say something now. It's like her life is suspended. It could go either way? With the tassels. The costume designer, Consolata Boyle, she did The Iron Lady, The Queen. She came in and had some fantastic photographic references. I remember we began the shoot in that scene in the forest between Roland and Vera.

Emily Watson as Vera's mother:
Emily Watson as Vera's mother: "Don't forget, it's human beings that we are fighting, with mothers and sons and children."

When they are talking and she says "I want to be a writer." And I remember saying to Consolata, "she looks too…" She had a beautiful coat and a hat and I said, "lose it all!" I said, "she's not that stylish. She looks like a fashion model."

AKT: That explains the tassels! How do you make something look less stylish? By adding tassels!

JK: Maybe that's what it was. Because after that note, she added things.

AKT: You know the quote by Coco Chanel, before you leave the house, you look in the mirror and take off one accessory. And here she did the opposite, to make Vera less elegant after you told her.

JK: Brilliant! I love that! I would never have known. I'm going to ask her.

AKT: Let me know.

JK: I will. The whole tassel theory.

AKT: One of the strongest scenes for me is the one at the beach when Roland is home on leave. He bonds with the guys, is completely cold to Vera at first and then she manages to break through to him.

Taron Egerton as Edward Brittain - even the lampshade has tassels
Taron Egerton as Edward Brittain - even the lampshade has tassels

JK: She does. She manages to break through partly because he truly does love her and he is trying to protect her. All this bonding with the guys is that he just can't cope looking at the woman he loves, knowing that he may well die. But also, I think, because she's kept her essence up to that point. Although she had seen terrible things, she's kept what made them special and she wants to remind him of that. The poems. Why would anyone think of that? But she is right.

The last thing on my mind is poetry. And she says "it isn't just poems, it's who we are." It's what the poems stand in for - that's what's important. It's our heart and our humanity. Remember, she grabs his chest - "It's our heart. Don't forget your heart."

AKT: The film came out last year for the centenary but this issue is timeless. Isn't that the core of the movie?

JK: It is the core. Absolutely. Don't forget, it's human beings that we are fighting, with mothers and sons and children.

AKT: The list you're showing in the newspaper of the fallen in combat, it looks like a phonebook.

JK: Yeah. Pages and pages. Every day that would have been. Imagine, you've got your lover or your brother or your son and every day he may be on the list. Under P, under S, there might be my son's name. The Times published this list every day. In a single day, ten to twenty thousand men could die. In a single day! We go crazy at 9/11. It's like having 9/11 day after day. That's the number of families.

Testament Of Youth US posters at the Bow-Tie Chelsea Cinemas premiere
Testament Of Youth US posters at the Bow-Tie Chelsea Cinemas premiere Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: We completely forget that about the First World War. You show the front at one point as pools of gold.

JK: That's from Geoffrey's letter.

AKT: Were there things about the First World War that you discovered while making the film, that you had no idea about before?

JK: I didn't know that men physically drowned in mud. They would be stuck up to their chests in the mud. These craters are filled with rainwater, create mud and the men would fall in. You can't physically pull someone out, you'd need tractors. So they would be left there alive, calling for days as they died. It's that kind of horror that you have to be aware of in that war. Imagine them screaming for three days?

AKT: You decided not to include this in your film.

JK: Too much. De trop, as the French say.

AKT: I now remember the question I wanted to ask you when we were interrupted earlier today.

JK: About the pools of gold?

AKT: Yes. Or on a larger scale, the way you use nature, especially water.

JK: Water is important to me in the film. It's about renaissance and revival. Nature in general is something I've always been impressed by. Nature's ability to look down on human beings, and see them do what they do. Like a great big oak tree that's there for centuries and witnesses so much. It loses leaves and gains leaves every year. [At this point I feel a bit as though Chauncey Gardiner had descended on the red carpet].

There's something very humbling about it. We're only here for a short while. What we do feels so important, we get so aggressive about trying to get what we want. In the end, nature wins through. We'll be gone, we return to the earth and become part of that tree actually.

Read on the red carpet with Alicia Vikander and Kit Harington joined by guests at the Bow-Tie Chelsea Cinemas premiere and the director James Kent from the Crosby Street Hotel.

Testament Of Youth is currently in theatres in the US and had its world premiere at last year's London Film Festival.

Share this with others on...

Cinema, culture and modernity Olaf Möller on Helmut Käutner, Wolfgang Staudte and Harald Braun

History and destiny Olaf Möller on The Lost Years of German Cinema: 1949–1963

Getting with the programme Jairus McLeary on The Work and giving prisoners a future

Highlights of Russian Film Week We pick four of the best from London fest.

The Magic Faraway Tree in development Studiocanal plans to adapt Enid Blyton classic

James Ivory receives sole credit for Call Me By Your Name screenplay Luca Guadagnino explains how he came to direct

More news and features

We're bringing you news, reviews and interviews with the stars from Made In Prague and the French Film Festival UK.

We've recently been covering Abertoir, the London Korean Film Festival, DOC NYC, the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival, the Cambridge Film Festival, the London East Asia Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the London Film Festival.

Read our full for recent coverage.

Visit our festivals section.


Win a copy of the Blu-ray and book of A Man Called Ove, plus a DVD, T-shirt and graphic novel of Eat Locals in our latest competitions.