Thursday, February 12, 2015

Testament of Youth was a book which (if I remember rightly) sat in the communal bathroom at the home of my youth atop the tumble dryer. Or maybe it was the bookcase on the landing. But I always clocked its fatness (would or wouldn't it be worth it?) and its sombre title and didn't pick it up. 

And now they've made it into a film. An incredibly good-looking film. The tale of Vera who wanted to be afforded the same treatment as her dishevelledly boyishly handsome brothers and sulked and shunned her piano until permitted to sit the exam for Somerville College at Oxford. Everything was going swimmingly until war inconsiderately broke out (damn that Gavrilo Princip), her brothers (I could never quite tell how many brothers she had) and their dear friend eagerly enrolled. And off they went to the trenches.

The next bit will be familiar to everyone who's watched any sort of war film. Mud, rain, barbed wire, shells, gas, wistful boyish faces gazing at the sky from the midden that is the home of this peculiarly masochistic form of warfare. Lots of bad stuff happens. Vera realises that war is despicable and her faith in the world's capacity for good is ruined. The end. 

It's a cracking story. A horrific story. A true story. And one replicated millions of times around Europe in 1918. I must see if the book is still sitting in the family home and finally peel open its covers.

But the film bugged me somehow. Vera was gorgeous. Alicia Vikander does do an outstanding job. The brothers / friends / lovers / parents / tutors all beautiful. The family home is beautiful. Obviously, Oxford is. The countryside is all oh to be in England which makes the mud and the filth and the guts in France all the more poignant.

It was a middle class story and of course, it had to be, or she wouldn't have written it down. And it felt like a middle class film. She's bright. She could be brilliant. She's about to be brilliant - then the nasty old war gets in the way. And it forces her to consider that other things than books matter.

B S said it felt like a Merchant Ivory film - and this is the best summary of my vague ambivalence. War isn't beautiful. Loss - of entire generations - isn't beautiful. Life is beautiful. But A Very Long Engagement captured that balance a little better in my humble opinion.

Then I read that The Telegraph liked it. "Stirring", they said. And poor film, poor brilliant Alicia, that was the nail in its coffin.


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