Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hour 9 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Note: There are spoilers in the last three paragraphs.
If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect
See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.
1 Thessalonians 5:15
Director James Kent’s film is a strong anti-war statement filled with heart-wrenching scenes. Though a British production, in its depiction of war as madness, it moves far beyond the usual Masterpiece period piece so beloved by American audiences. Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls) wrote the script, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of her harrowing experience during the World War 1 era. I will say it now, with its themes of youth, first love, feminism, the futility of war, and the need for reconciliation, this is a film not to be missed!
The story begins on Armistice Day 1918 as a young woman threads her way through the jublant people celebrating victory on the streets and sidewalks of London. She escapes the noisy congestion by entering a huge church building. She stands before a large painting on a wall. It is a whirling, busy scene showing a rocky coast and dozens of women, naked or nearly so, in distress. I wondered if they were victims of a shipwreck—given the period of the film, The RMS Lusitania came to mind. However, the image of the painting was quickly replaced by a flashback to a more placid water scene four years earlier. Vera (Alicia Vikander), her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his prep school friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) are frolicking in a rural pond.
When they return to the Brittain home, her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) have gathered some guests to witness her reaction to the surprise gift of a piano. Instead of reacting in pleasure and gratitude, Vera refuses to play a song because she sees this as part of her father’s plan to domesticate her so that she can become a meek, dutiful wife. Wanting to join the hand-full of young women attending Oxford, she declares that the cost of the piano would have paid for a year at the College. During this altercation with Mr. Brittain a new visitor enters the house, Roland Leighton (Kit Harington). One of Edward’s friends, the dark-eyed youth will prove essential to the intellectual development of the budding girl aspiring to become a writer.
Over the course of his visit Roland comes to admire the spirited girl, accepting her views on the Suffragette Movement and her desire to enroll at Oxford. When he finds one of her poems slipped into one of the books she has tossed over her balcony during a fit of anger, he keeps it, later complimenting her on it. She appreciatievly tells him that no one has ever done so before. (He himself aspires to be a writer, though he tells Vera that he feels under the shadow of his parents, both of whom are published writers.)
To her and her brother and friends’ delight her father gives in to her longing and allows her to travel, with a chaperone, of course, to the University to take the entrance examination. Although fearful at first because she knew far more German than Latin, word does arrive later that she has been accepted. Her first days at Oxford are enjoayble ones.
However her university days are not to last for long. Like a tiny cloud on the horizon heralding a great storm, during Roland’s first visit we are shown a close-up of the newspaper that Mr. Brittain casually lays on a table. The small article on the right side of the front page announces the assassination of the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. The growing tensions that lead to the outbreak of war a month later are also shown in newspaper headlines, until, when war is declared, Roland tells Vera that he is signing up, that he cannot miss out on the world shaking events. She is upset, but pride in the British Empire, as we hear from the speaker at the commencement for the three young men who have been in the officer training corps at prep school, sweeps away all misgivings about the cost of war.
In scenes that call to mind similar ones from the Vietnam War era film The Deer Hunter, the young people discuss the war, the men certain that it will be a short one with victory for Britain and its allies. Almost everyone is deceived by the wave of intense patriotism, when perhaps they should be calling to mind the advice of the apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome. Vera, when the under-age Edward asks for her help in convincing their father to allow him to join up, agrees to do so, telling her father that he must let Edward become a man now. Soon the family is saying goodbye at the train station as the hundreds of young men eagerly set off to war. Roland and Victor also ship out. Vera keeps in touch with Roland via letters, and during his first short furlough they agree to marry when he returns.
We do not see any of the battles at the front, but we do see close-ups of Roland as well as him walking across a devastated landscape. In one letter he includes his poem ”Villanelle,” with its opening lines:
“Violets from Plug Street Wood, Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue, Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head: It is strange they should be blue.)” *
As we hear Roland read the poem we see him standing “Where his mangled body lay/Hiding horrors from the day.” What a juxtaposition—between the flowers and the soldier’s dead body, as well as between the writer’s blasted battlefield and the quiet solititude of the rural home where Vera is reading the lines.
Roland does return on his second furlough, but he barely acknowledges Vera when she rushes to the spot where he is contemplating the waters of the English Channel. She is shocked by his appearance and his cheerless demeanor. There are no wedding vows exchanged, indeed very few words at all. When the perturbed Vera, trying to make talk, asks if he has written any poems while away, he sneers contemptuously: “Poetry! Oh, for God’s sake!”
By now Vera has left Oxford to join a group of volunteer nursing auxillaries, and henceforth we see, if not the battles themselves, then the horrifying consequences of bullets and shells. Men, many of them groaning aloud, lie on cots, their limbs reduced to bloody stumps, their still-bleeding gashes in their mud-encased bodies. We see the latter when Vera volunteers for duty at medical stations in France just a few miles behind the trenches. One scene, modeled after the famous shot of wounded soldiers in Gone With the Wind, reveals the vastness of the human carnage as the camera pulls back from a shot of Vera and a soldier on a stretcher for an overhead shot revealing hundreds of the wounded and the dying. Orderlies are bringing in still more, while doctors and nurses move about, trying to bring some tiny measure of relief to this seemingly endless sea of suffering and misery.
As effective as the above scene is, even more powerful is the small drama of Vera and a fellow nurse tending to a dying German soldier (Adam Ganne). The other nurse, regarding the prisoner as a “Hun,” is surprised when Vera comforts the enemy in his native tongue, the man slipping away while speaking with a sympathetic listener able to understand and respond to him. When asked what he was talking about, Vera replies that it was about his home and family—the same things that their British patients spoke about. This is a scene that will become especially important at the end of the film.
After the War Vera does return to Oxford and the stern but concerned adviser who had welcomed her earlier, Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson). But she has lost so much in the war, all of the three young men who had been such close companions, that she finds it difficult to rise out of her despair. It is an unnamed woman student that helps pull her out of her despondency. (I am not sure, but this could be the student who became one of her best friends and fellow writer, Winifred Holtby, played by Alexandra Roach.) So fresh-faced and eager to become friends when she had first approached her that Vera had rebuffed her, the student does not give up, but seeks her out again in her room. When Vera learns that her unwanted visitor is not another naïve girl but had also served overseas as a nurse, she opens up again to the joy and adventure of life.
Vera is enabled to move on, becoming, as we see in the last scene an advocate for peace, pleading at a public meeting for reconciliation with Germany. It is a tough audience, one man arguing for vengeance and a mother whose son was killed in the war speaking harshly against their former enemies. Vera is able, with even more conviction, based also on personal lost, to plead that they work for a better world and not repeat the tragic mistakes of the recent past. Thus the film ends on a high note, with end cards informing us of the wide readership of her memoir and of her accepting a calling to become an advocate for peace in the post war years.
*This poem and the other one quoted in the film, “Hédauville,” can be found at: http://http://www.ox.ac.uk/world-war-1/people/roland-aubrey-Leighton
The review with a set of 12 discussion questions is in the August issue of Visual Parables.