Testament of Youth is based on the famous First World War memoir by Vera Brittain. The story begins in the Edwardian spring of 1914 with Vera Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander), a youthful feminist fighting her conservative parents for the chance to go to Oxford alongside her brother and his friends. But then war is declared and all the young men enlist. Vera leaves university to train as a nurse and ends up tending to captured German soldiers on the front as one by one those closest to her are lost to the war including her brother (Taron Egerton) and fiancé (Kit Harrington).
The film was directed by James Kent who makes his feature debut and the DoP was Rob Hardy. They explain their approach to the film below
James Kent: director
(HOLOCAUST: A MUSIC MEMORIAL FILM FROM AUSCHWITZ, THE SECRET DIARIES OF MISS ANNE LISTER, INSIDE MEN, THE WHITE QUEEN, THE THIRTEENTH TALE)
They’d been working on the script for a good three years before I came on board. The script was already pretty tight. I suggested my own flavours, but no one had been cast at that point. There had been initial noise about Saoirse Ronan playing Vera Brittain but she was unavailable. At that point we had about 25% of financing in place. You need to have a realism about whether the film will go ahead but until people feel that the bus is leaving the bus station no one will commit financially. They need to feel that this is a movie they will regret passing up on, and they won’t focus unless they feel that the film is probably going to happen. The vibe you give out is ‘we’re going to make this film.’
Heyday films took on, in film terms, an unknown director. So a lot of my work had to be done early to present a vision to the BFI and David Heyman and Lionsgate. I had to have a very strong independent vision to convince them I would ride above ‘debut film director’ and deliver them a movie at the end of it. They felt I could bring that fusion of drama and documentary, that I would make a film that would be fluid and handheld and wouldn’t fall into Merchant Ivory world or heritage drama but would also have handsomely mounted production values. The thing I really brought to the table was a very subjective take. I wanted this to be very much Vera Brittain’s experience. That you would be hugging her throughout the story, that’s what I hoped was my USP on the movie.
It’s hard to get around that period film aspect. You have the architecture of the film, the old buildings, the costumes, the beautiful people wearing a better version of what they wear in Downton while at the same time you’re adapting a memoir that is a rock solid icon. You need to bring something true to our historical filmic routes but that feels like a new take for a new generation coming to A Testament of Youth.
You have a different list for heads of department than you would for television. They do tend to sit on either side of the divide so there was quite a new set of faces for me to consider. [DoP] Rob Hardy tends not to do television, [production designer] Jon Henson similarly. So that was very exciting to find I was looking at a whole new array of British filmmaking talent.
We had no cast when we started, no Vera. We’d mooted Saoirse Ronan as Vera but when she fell out we had nobody. By great good luck Alicia became free. She was our key appointment. Then it was about finding a Roland and an array of handsome young men and that’s not unlike television apart from all the time you had to think of the commercial imperative. You’re looking for the best person for the part but while in TV you might be looking for one or two of those to pull in the crowd, in a film you have to be looking at that across seven or eight parts. Vera’s parents are Emily Watson and Dominic west, then you’ve got a big star from Game of Thrones playing Roland, that’s the world you’re in.
In this film, what played to our advantage was the youth of the main cast. For Kit Harrington and Alicia to dominate a film of this quality is a great showcase for them. In their mid twenties this was an opportunity for them. Vera is the best female role, if you’re in your twenties, that you could possibly be given. She’s not just playing the love interest.
Being new to film I was both astonished and relieved when I joined the project. I was astonished that it had to be done almost as fast as television – seven weeks. You have more resources that are largely oiling this machine so it can produce bigger production values in a short space of time but you’re still shooting three or four pages a day. I even lost a week off the schedule. We just didn’t have the money for eight weeks but we still had to make the same film.
On the other hand I was relieved I had an extensive career in television, as it wasn’t a shock for me. We burnt two thirds of the contingency in the first two to three weeks of filming, we were not able to go into any over time at all on any day. In TV terms you’re used to that, in film terms that’s a very heavy restriction for a director. It’s only about £2k an hour when you go into overtime, which can give you a lot more but we didn’t have that. But having done lots of TV drama, I never get overtime. £7m sounds like a lot coming out of TV, in film it’s considered a budget film. They chose me as we all knew this film wasn’t going to get more than £7m of financing. They needed someone who could handle that – a director who isn’t going to go AWOL. Directors get very obsessive and anxious and don’t give a toss about the budget. In TV you can’t have that attitude because you just won’t get used again.
The way you cope with a small budget is you hire a fantastic DoP. They will elevate, in the same amount of time with the same equipment, what someone else would make look ordinary. I knew that’s what Rob Hardy would bring. I’d seen The Invisible Woman and I loved both Boy A and Red Riding. He’s also used to working within those restrictions. He hasn’t yet done his Hollywood thing, which he will do.
That works all down the line with your crew. You have to surround yourself with people with a similar realism. On the floor you’re cutting and trimming your day accordingly – dropping scenes you can do without or rolling scenes into one scene and being economical with your takes. I probably did three with any given set up. But with a great actress and cast that should be enough. I remember Susanna White telling me that if you cast well, as a director you’ve probably done 60% 0r 70% of your work.
Two iconic directors inspired me. One was Jane Campion and The Piano. It’s her love of nature and her microscopic attention to the female mind and the intensity of those key love scenes.
And the other is David Lean. The film I love most of his is Brief Encounter and that internal monologue that Celia Johnson has in her head and the experiential female viewpoint. It’s also his love for stream trains and carriages and departures and you see that in Testament of Youth to a small extent. Pressburger is another one for the war and Gone with the Wind for the iconic shot over the stretcher-bearers. I confess I did steal that. But all directors always take from our legacy.
I knew the unifying factor over the entire film was this palpable sense of irony that the audience knew that terrible things were going to happen to those central characters.
When we entered act one it’s the glorious Edwardian summer so the lensing is wider and the colours are brighter. The whole thing has more fluidity. It’s a liquid, languid optimistic view of the world as they and Vera possessed at that moment. Then, as it progresses, you enter darker more sombre worlds of browns and greys and hospital interiors. By the end the lensing gets extremely tight on Vera. When she goes back to Oxford it’s really just a backdrop for a psychological breakdown, a kind of shell shock she suffers. Then we’re incredibly tight on her face and its incredibly claustrophobic. The film has this narrowing on Vera’s face as we progress through the film.
Rob Hardy: DoP
(EX MACHINA, EVERY SECRET THING, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, BROKEN, SHADOW DANCER, STOLEN, RED RIDING: 1974, IS ANYBODY THERE?, BOY A, EXHIBIT A)
We do period movies a lot in this country and we do them well, but you want to make an outstanding period movie. We wanted to get to the heart of the story. It’s a visceral journey but our visual grammar or ideas of what the period is are often led by period movies that aren’t necessarily authentic. I made The Invisible Woman, which is a dark film because those Victorian rooms were dark. So I didn’t want to be involved in something that wasn’t going to be truthful. Rosie [Alison, the producer] and James really wanted that truth.
I’d just worked with Alicia Vikander on Ex Machina, so there was that connection. We’d already developed this dance together so there was a great deal of trust between us. In terms of the images I want to create a proximity with Vera Brittain rather than to be sat back and observing like classically shot movies. What we were after was something more inherently ‘in there’, like you’re in the room experiencing it with that person.
Technically there are certain lenses that for me mean certain things. I had two sets of lenses. One set was an anamorphic Crystal Express set and the other was a spherical set so effectively I had these two emotional states. The anamorphic lenses created this specific world she inhabited which was very much about her and the environment whereas the circle lenses were really used to break through that barrier and get super close when we needed to.
There were a number of recces as we had a lot of ground to cover. Effectively it was like a road move. We were in Sheffield, York, Leeds, Scarborough, Whitby, up on the moors, London, Oxford. When you try to recce something like that you’re spending most of your time in a car. And then you’ve got the major sections like the house, or Etaples or the trenches.
In London there are eight or nine period homes where you shoot. Every time you walk in there you can see a little bit of gaffer tape in the corner and the designer is tearing their hair out saying ‘I was in here last month.’ The great thing about Testament was we found this estate up north that had only been shot in once on a Tom Hardy film and they’d only used one room. So we did everything there; Vera’s parental home, the parade stuff, the trenches, Etaples and nobody had really shot there so we had the freedom to do that 360-degree thing.
From the beginning, this felt like a project that should shoot on film. We tested 16mm. I loved it but Rosie and James thought it was too edgy. We also tested some 35 mm which we put alongside what we shot on digital. I was using an F65 which is just great.
We took it to Asa Shoul at Molinare and he graded both so they looked very similar and we did split screen comparisons. The film is so much about Vera’s emotional journey and her face becomes a landscape, film was giving us so much more in many respects, the way it renders the skin and every detail in it. I’m not talking about pores but subtlety and colour. Knowing Alicia you can see colour in her face change when she goes through a certain emotional arc.
The problem was I was the only one who really wanted to do it. James had never shot film before. They got nervous. People want to know what they’re getting on the day, there’s an immediacy to digital that is reassuring.
In the end there was some effort to try to make the sums work for film but because it was a period piece we were moving around so much, in the end we were £200k shy of being able to shoot on film.
BBC Films and Heyday Films, Screen yorkshire and BFI in association with Hotwells Productions, Nordisk Film Production and Lipsync
David Heyman and Rosie Alison
Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer
Hugo Heppell, Zygi Kamasa, Richard Mansell
Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Emily Watson, Dominic West and Miranda Richardson
Director of photography
Make up and hair design
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