Can war bring satisfaction? Can we say we have achieved a satisfactory result when we leave so many wounded and dead because of unnecessary wars we put ourselves into? A young British woman, Vera Brittain recalls coming of age during World War I – a story of young love, uselessness of war, and her sacrifice to change something that was not in her power – to make through the darkness… But how far can a woman go when she’s left alone in her fight against an unchangeable fact – no matter how hard you fight against evil, it will still take its last chance to take everything you love because it knows no other way to exist… Testament of Youth directed by James Kent is an incredible film based on true story. It something that will certainly be remembered by those, who loves period drama with strong performances.
This is why I felt so honored having an opportunity to interview director James Kent during Niagara Integrated Film Festival.
MOVIEMOVESME: Testament of Youth is probably one of the best films about war from a woman’s angle. Can you talk about what gave you the inspiration or why was it important to make this film?
James Kent: I think in a way coming from the woman’s perspective is its own answer. We have so much conflict portrayed, soldiers on the front line, a deer hunter, many many WWII films but never ever about women experiences. She experiences, in this movie, really heartfelt emotion and love and loss. I think that’s something that brings home just what happens when young men are sent to war. So that’s a very important story to tell. Also Vera Brittain is a remarkable young lady, she pioneered women’s education, she was a journalist after the war, and she earned her own income which is unusual then. I think it’s a story that inspires young and old.
MOVIEMOVESME: I love how Alicia appears so confident in every scene, especially when the film is so emotionally packed. Can you tell us how Alicia prepared for the character she played?
James Kent: Alicia did her own research. She met the daughter of Vera Brittain and spent some time with her. To be honest it’s a process that goes on inside an actor’s mind. It is a mystery to me as much as anyone else. They either inhabit those qualities or they don’t and when you miscast a film, it’s because you think they inhabit these qualities when they actually don’t quite. I think with Alicia I’m yet to see whether she can do comedy and this kind of thing. She may well be able to but because she’s a tragedian, you know she’s a fantastic actress in terms of tragedy. So this role was perfect for her.
MOVIEMOVESME: The scene where Vera goes to Paris in order to be close to her brother in case he got injured. Her genuine goal was to save his life. That scene was incredibly done. Can you tell us about the filming process because when she goes, the camera couldn’t stop and then you show the field of the dead soldiers?
James Kent: I think that’s right. I think for me it was very important to have one moment of mass death and wounding because otherwise you can never understand Vera Brittain’s anger at the scale of loss in the war. So that was a very important shot like that scene in Gone With The Wind where there’s a famous shot of Scarlett O’Hara walking across the wounded in Atlanta. I think this is something of Scarlet O’Hara in Vera Brittain, that sort of indomitable spirit and honesty and there are times she’s not entirely likeable like Scarlet. So for me that shot which we had only forty extras on the day, we had to move them and the visual effects people create 500 or however many you say. It’s planning, these shots if you plan, everybody is in position, they know what they’re doing. We probably had four or five in depth conversations as to how to achieve that shot because time is money on the film set. All the technical guys would set up the cameras, a big long camera on a crane. They needed to know exactly what we’re done. I was really pleased with the final shot.
MOVIEMOVESME: What made this film so great to watch including the storyline, the concept but also the great chemistry between Alicia and Taron Egerton and also Alicia and Kit Harington. So what was your vision on the selection of actors?
James Kent: Yeah they are great together, particularly Taron and Alicia as brother and sister are great. Taron is a hugely promising young actor, he’s just out of Royal Academy of Arts and I think they feel like brother and sister genuinely. Kit is not at all like he’s in Game of Thrones as a person. He’s very sensitive, soulful, and intellectual. He knew the poems already, that’s unusual, he’s a young man of twenty six and he already knew the poems. So that was pretty amazing.
MOVIEMOVSME: There was a scene where people run out to celebrate the end of the war while we find the grieving mothers in the church. The great point of that scene was there’s no winners or losers when the war ends.
James Kent: Absolutely, there are no winners. I think the First World War was particularly difficult war to remember because at least with the Second World War the defeat of Hitler was a very clear objective. Nobody could doubt, there was no choice but WWI feels just like powerful men fighting like in a playground. But the effects of the deaths of millions of young men. Today we look back at WWI simply in a moment of grief and regret, which I wouldn’t say we look at WWII. I think with these mothers and Vera in the church, it’s all grief that we can feel about that.
MOVIEMOVESME: War never justifies the sacrifices made towards accomplishing victory. After seeing the Testament Of Youth you realise it even more. Somewhere in the world is probably a little version of Vera Brittain, who buried her loved ones every day. So do you think mankind couldn’t learn from the mistakes they made?
James Kent: I think war has always been here from the very earliest days mankind pu their feet on earth. I can’t ever imagine it not being here. Everybody has a desire for power, which is in the human mind and many people don’t have it but you only need leaders who do and then you end up in a situation where fear and desire for wealth take over. I do believe that’s a human characteristic but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
MOVIEMOVESME: The location you picked looked so innocent, untouched and very beautiful which actually reflects the time when those things happened. Can you tell us about the location?
James Kent: That was very important to me that the beginning of the film, which some people have misread as being purposefully sort of period English drama, beautiful for beauty’s sake, which is not at all. It’s because of the beauty of the knowledge of what’s to come. It was all shot in Yorkshire, which is the north of England and a week in Oxford which is an extremely beautiful, old university town. It was important to me that innocence and optimism and promise of being so young was reflected in nature around them. Then everything gets defiled and destroyed by the horrors of the what is to come. Vera Brittain loved nature. She was very attached to flowers, to walking, she lived in a great walking landscape Derbyshire and so it felt to me like capturing that free spirit at the beginning of the film was only fair to her. Then to see her ground down by the events and in the end return to the nature in order to begin her life again but a grown up woman now, not a young girl.
MOVIEMOVESME: When it comes to filmmaking, what do you think is more important among the story, performers, directing, cinematography, music or atmosphere?
James Kent: I think every director might give you the same answer which is they’re all important. Look, I think the most important thing is the performance, I’ve always felt that. You can make a film that’s not beautifully photographed, maybe where the locations aren’t quite right, but if the performances are amazing, it will be a great film. In a way sometimes the greatest films don’t require huge amounts of beauty. I would definitely say I’m an actor’s director. I also do love cinematography though, but I guess you asked me for the most important aspect and the answer to that is performance. What the audience is really looking at is the actors, the rest is helpful. For example if you’re doing a Marvel superhero movie, the performances probably aren’t as important as the look. But the films which I make are drama, and what makes the audience enter your film is the connection to the characters.
MOVIEMOVESME: I recently read an interview where Nicole Kidman talks about sexism in Hollywood. She said that after a certain age those actresses are no longer needed. In your film the main protagonist is a woman and you tell a woman’s story, so how much do you think is that prevalent?
James Kent: Alicia is a very beautiful, young woman. A lot of those comments are made about women who are getting into their forties and not getting roles while men in their forties, fifties or sixties are getting roles. There’s an ageism there which doesn’t apply to the Testament of Youth because Vera’s in her early twenties. I think finally the filmmaking world is waking up a bit and I think there have been a lot of films about women or at least feature very strong female characters because the truth is many of the tickets are being bought by women or girls. They actually have more appetite for cinema or as much as the boys and the film industry is desperate to hold on an audience as it’s factoring onto television. So I think they’re revisiting that issue. I think in ten, fifteen years, things will be much improved. We’re on the journey, definitely not there yet. I think the worst thing is the absence of female directors, funnily that’s a more serious issue than the absence of female actresses. It’s because a female director will create different a kind of film and they’re just not getting any opportunities, that’s really shameful.