Memories can be tricky — especially when you’re working with someone else’s.
Just ask James Kent, director of Testament of Youth, now in theaters. In his feature film debut, Kent was tasked with bringing a 600-page memoir by pacifist and feminist Vera Brittain — one of the most beloved memoirs of World War I — to the big screen.
Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) stars as Vera, whom we first meet in 1914. She’s a bright, innocent girl with dreams of being a writer, who’s madly in love with her boyfriend Roland (Game of Thrones' Kit Harington). But as the war progresses, and Vera puts down the pen to become a nurse, the carefree memories of her youth become harder to hold onto. One by one, the people closest to her succumb to the horrors of war, and Vera is changed.
Through the hardship, however, Vera remains strong, eventually using her experiences to become a peace activist and one of the most cherished voices of her generation. Above all, Testament of Youth is a story of memories — both good and bad — and how they shape us to become the people we’re meant to be.
Van Winkle's spoke with Kent about the experience of adapting the beloved text, the challenge of shooting a World War I film and the way his own dreams and memories influenced the movie's aesthetics.
What are the challenges of putting someone’s real memories onto screen?
For me, it was these flashes; these iconic moments of her boyfriend, those sexy moments where you realize there’s some chemistry going on here. Those are the moments I wanted to keep repeating, so that was important.
The actual memory of her whole journey was really just me working quite closely with Alicia Vikander to make sure we were getting inside the real Vera, understanding where she was in her story arc and transmitting that. Alicia is an amazing transmitter of emotion.
What are some of the most important flashes of memory in the movie?
I think Roland looking back over his shoulder at Vera, which is basically the first time he’s showing her that he really cares, because he’s about to declare the fact that he really wants to make a relationship. That’s a really big one for her.
The movie has a very dreamlike feel to it, maybe because so much of it is based in memory. How do dreams inspire your work and your directing?
You know, I think the human imagination is a combination of dream world and real world, and drawing a line between what divides them is sometimes difficult. I’m quite a romantic, passionate, emotional person. I think my dreams are also incredibly emotional, and they’re full of guilt and they’re full of regret, and I think I look at life quite often in that kind of melancholic way.
And the subject matter of this film is quite melancholy. I think it’s really inspiring as well, but it comes from a bed of loss. So maybe my Jewish neurosis is what informs my work.
What are the challenges of staying true to a real person’s story?
I think as a filmmaker your first duty is to the film and to making a good movie. Your second duty that comes hard on the heels of your first is to make sure you don’t betray your subject or her memory. I mean, [Vera’s] family is still alive, her daughter’s still alive. When we made the film, we had to have her permission.
And I think also when you’re dealing with a subject as catastrophic as World War I, and the memory of millions of boys who can’t speak for themselves, I think you have a responsibility to be true to that story. If you soap-sud it too much, you’re betraying what they went through.
Why do war stories make for such great coming-of-age films?
Because they’re like an accelerated roadmap of going from child to adult. If you’re 17 or 18, and you sign up for Band of Brothers or World War I, then in three years you’re going to experience more than you would ever experience in 20 years of peacetime.
And so seeing young human beings under stress and pressure, and seeing how they learn and experience from that, that’s a rite-of-passage movie. It’s horrific, but it’s also sort of incredibly courageous as well. Young people become adults in a really movie-friendly way.
Alicia Vikander gives a great performance showing Vera’s growth from before the war to after the war. How did you try to show that she had changed?
In four years, she’s gone through love, she’s gone through grief and she’s gone through breakdown. How she’s changed is she has just become somebody who knows herself and she knows what she wants to say about the world, and she’s damn angry and she wants to scream and say ‘Why are we doing this?’ She’s matured, and she’s a grown woman.
What can young people learn from Vera Brittain’s story?
There’s two things. One is don’t take what adults say necessarily as gospel truth, because they sent us into Vietnam, they sent us into Iraq. There’ll be another war around the corner. You don’t have to fight. Just think about it.
Another thing is, don’t get so buried in Facebook and Instagram or whatever that you forget to look up and look at the world and look at politics and have a political viewpoint on the world. A fantastic way of earning your space in the world is to think about health care, foreign policy and the environment — these things, we’re all jointly responsible for.
So I think do what Vera did — act what you believe in.
One last thing: Kit Harington is clean-shaven and devoid of his Game of Thrones locks. Do you think people will be okay with that?
Look, we all have different tastes. I think people are going to be surprised, and I think people are going to be really questioning, ‘Is that Kit Harington?’ But you know, he’s a fantastic actor. He’s more than walking hair.