Conventional wisdom challenged in ‘Testament of Youth’

“Testament of Youth (2015 release, 2014 production). Cast: Alicia Vikander, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Kit Harington, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Joanna Scanlan, Hayley Atwell, Anna Chancellor, Nicholas Le Prevost, Daisy Waterstone, Jonathan Bailey, Henry Garrett, Alexandra Roach, Niamh Cusack, Laura Elsworthy, Naomi Everson. Director: James Kent. Screenplay: Juliette Towhidi. Book: Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth. Web site. Trailer.

Fewer things are more potent than an idea. It may take some time and effort for it to take hold, but the impact it may ultimately have can be considerable, often far greater than anything initially imagined. This can be especially true when it comes to the birth of new social movements, notions that can affect society – and even the world – at large. A fine example of how this plays out can now be seen in the emotive new historical memoir, “Testament of Youth.”

During a time of shifts in public opinion and social values, it can be difficult to maintain the status quo, especially among those who are helping to drive those forces of change. So it was in 1914 England with Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), a headstrong, self-assured, independent thinker with aspirations far different from those of most women at the time. Rather than be relegated to a life of conventional marriage and homemaking, for example, Vera fought for the right to apply to Oxford to earn her college degree and become a writer, much to the consternation of her parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson). What’s more, despite the subtle matchmaking attempts of Vera’s brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), to fix her up with his friend Victor (Colin Morgan), the idealistic young nonconformist resisted these efforts, insisting that she preferred to live her life without a husband. Clearly, Vera was a force to be reckoned with.

Still, despite her many attempts at breaking out and becoming her own person, Vera also couldn’t help but be somewhat swayed by the entrenched, mainstream thinking of the time. For example, when World War I broke out, she fell in line with conventional patriotic sentiments. She even lobbied her father on her brother’s behalf to allow him to volunteer for military service, a gesture that she contended would allow Edward to aid his country’s cause and help him to mature as a man. She also began to fall for the charms of a man in uniform, Edward’s friend Roland (Kit Harington), despite her earlier proclamations of intending to remain a single, independent woman.

Nevertheless, all concessions to tradition aside, Vera zealously clung to her free-spirited outlook for the most part. She was accepted into Oxford, having employed an unconventional strategy to do so. Before long, she began her studies in earnest under the tutelage of a watchful mentor, Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson), a traditionalist who discreetly admired the refreshing moxie of her new student.

Shortly after enrolling, however, Vera started to have a change of heart about her schooling. Having witnessed a burgeoning number of young soldiers returning home maimed and shell-shocked, Vera felt a need to get involved and do something meaningful. She quickly concluded that pursuing an education was comparatively inconsequential, a realization that prompted her to leave school and become a volunteer nurse. Miss Lorimer and others protested this seemingly capricious impulse, but, given Vera’s strong-willed demeanor, there was no stopping her once her mind was made up. It proved to be a decision that would change her life.

During her work in an English hospital and on the front lines in France, Vera witnessed the horrors of war firsthand. While tending to the injuries of both Allied and German forces (including both Victor and Edward), she saw the atrocities of armed conflict in up-close, graphic detail. The impact it had on her was particularly poignant given that this war marked the first-time use of savagely efficient new weapons, like mustard gas, armaments capable of inflicting untold harm in ways never imagined. What’s more, given the horrific conditions of working in a battlefield hospital, with its endemic shortages of staff and supplies, Vera and her colleagues often found themselves forced to perform such procedures as makeshift amputations, gruesome tasks that they never envisioned having to do.

Needless to say, Vera’s attitudes about war were far different after the conflict than they were when the fighting began, especially in light of what she saw and the personal losses she experienced. It gave her a new perspective about combat and its impact – on both friend and foe alike – despite continued public support for such officially sanctioned madness, even in the wake of what the war cost the country in terms of lives, limbs and peace of mind. The experience thus spurred Vera to make her views heard, becoming an ardent peace activist, a virtually unknown commodity at the time. It also gave her a reason to make use of her long-languishing writing talent. She penned a memoir of her wartime ordeals titled Testament of Youth, a book that would become a best seller and set in motion a movement that would progressively gain strength throughout the 20th Century.

Unabashedly asserting one’s independence can be challenging, even under the best of circumstances. However, at a time of emerging change, when new ideas can experience considerable trouble getting off the ground, it takes persistence, confidence and gumption for such notions to find a foothold and take root. Given the herd mentality of those who resist such innovative concepts, there can be much pressure placed on the advocates of reform. But the opposition to those initiatives also usually indicates that such changes are long overdue.

In many ways, Vera embodies the foregoing. Her desire to attend college and establish a career, her wish to live an unattached life, and even her tacit support of progressive movements like women’s suffrage are all apparent as the story opens. And, after Vera’s trying experiences dealing with the war-wounded, her impassioned pacifist advocacy set her apart from most of her peers, especially when she spoke about the welfare of both allies and enemies. However, these attitudes also reflected changes that were quietly simmering in society at large. Vera’s views thus helped birth reforms in matters of both personal choice and public change, shepherding them into being at a time when needed most.

No matter which side one supports in debates like this, the outcomes in each case owe their existence to the power of belief, the means by which such manifestations materialize through the conscious creation process. Beliefs allow prevailing circumstances to become established and enable new conceptions to arise. In both cases, though, the results that emerge depend on the level of backing behind their respective intents. Adequate support either enables existing ideas to persist or for new ones to surface, with the opposite being true when sufficient reinforcement is lacking.

In implementing new manifestations, the presence of certain qualities can aid the process immeasurably. For instance, those who fearlessly adhere to their beliefs and clearly make their intentions known possess the courage to see their visions take shape. And those who go about this practice by faithfully drawing upon their heartfelt, genuine intents infuse integrity into the mix, an attribute that often allows their materializations to become expressed with greater fidelity, strength and speed.

If you need proof of the foregoing, compare the rate at which change comes into being with how long the established order is unquestioningly allowed to remain in place. Admittedly, it may take some time for new ideas to come to full fruition, but progress, in many cases, unfolds at a far more rapid pace than what most might initially expect. Indeed, as the work of activists like Vera make clear, few things are more formidable than a belief whose time has come.

To institute such change, though, we must often think outside of conventional bounds to see our intents realized. This may involve some seemingly unlikely, perhaps even painful, undertakings for those notions to become materialized. For example, would Vera’s fervent pacifist advocacy have come about were it not for her wartime experience? While some might like to believe that there must be an easier way to achieve the goal of peace than to go through the horror of war, many of us, for what it’s worth, may nevertheless need to have the conflict experience before we’re able to conceive of a more viable alternative. War may truly be hell, but what it ultimately births may prove to be an unimagined blessing in disguise.

Recognizing and making use of synchronicities can also prove quite fortuitous to this process. For instance, would Vera’s activism have had the same impact if she hadn’t also possessed the ability to make her views known through her writing? It’s interesting to note how she was willing to shelve the development of this talent when she saw a need to pursue the higher priority of becoming involved in the war effort, probably not realizing at the time that drawing upon this skill would come back to play a vital role in her life later on. As she moved through these seemingly disparate, unrelated phases in her life, Vera likely couldn’t see how they would eventually come together to connect. Yet, because of the coalescence of such skills and experiences, she would go on to make quite an impact, in ways that she probably never envisioned before living through the sequence of events of her life.

Vera’s story thus provides a prime example of living out our value fulfillment. This conscious creation concept has to do with living our lives in line with our best, truest selves for the benefit of both ourselves and those around us. Ms. Brittain may not have brought about an end to armed conflict, just as World War I may not have been the war to end all wars. However, by bringing attention to the issue of warfare’s horrendous consequences, she helped frame one of the century’s most profound, meaningful social movements. We should all have such impact.

“Testament of Youth” is one of the more pleasant surprises of the summer movie season. The film has not received much fanfare, and its trailer, regrettably, doesn’t do the picture justice. Yet this underrated offering delivers its message with impassioned sincerity in a beautifully filmed package with superb period piece production values. Alicia Vikander delivers yet another fine performance, adding significantly to what is becoming an impressive cinematic résumé. And, even though the film drags a bit in the first 45 minutes, with too much emphasis on Vera’s vacillating romantic inclinations, the picture improves significantly as it progresses toward its inspiring conclusion.

Challenging the conventional wisdom can be an uphill battle, especially when it has been locked in place for a long time. However, the rewards that come from dispensing with outmoded ideas can be incalculable, especially when preferable alternatives are allowed to become established. Putting new initiatives into place requires the commitment of advocates like Vera Brittain, but, as the results often show, the outcome is certainly worth the effort.

Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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