Vera Brit­tain’s writ­ings helped shape Vikan­der’s ap­proach to ‘Tes­ta­ment’

Los Angeles Times - - MOVIES - By Su­san King su­san.king@la­times.com

Ernest Hem­ing­way’s “A Farewell to Arms” and Erich Maria Re­mar­que’s “All Quiet on the West­ern Front” chron­i­cled the dev­as­ta­tion of World War I — from the male point of view.

“Tes­ta­ment of Youth,” Vera Brit­tain’s pow­er­ful 1933 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, of­fered a fe­male per­spec­tive, the in­sights of a woman who wit­nessed the hor­rors. Af­ter los­ing loved ones, Brit­tain aban­doned her stud­ies at Ox­ford to be­come a nurse and to tend to sol­diers — in­clud­ing Ger­man POWs — for the re­main­der of the war. She be­came a noted paci­fist when she re­turned home.

Her mem­oir was adapted into an award-win­ning 1979 BBC minis­eries that starred Ch­eryl Camp­bell as Brit­tain and aired on PBS’ “Master­piece Theatre.” The first fea­ture film ver­sion opens Fri­day, star­ring Swedish actress Ali­cia Vikan­der (“Ex Machina”) as the in­domitable hero­ine. Vikan­der earned a Bri­tish In­de­pen­dent Film Award nom­i­na­tion last year for her il­lu­mi­nat­ing per­for­mance.

“It’s such an amaz­ing story,” said Vikan­der, who worked with a di­alect coach to per­fect her Bri­tish ac­cent. She had read a lot about the First World War but hadn’t seen the conf lict from a fe­male per­spec­tive un­til she read Brit­tain’s book. “It is such a story about youth.”

Brit­tain, direc­tor James Kent said, is “tricky to like” be­cause she is so opin­ion­ated, but “that stands her in good stead when the cards are against her.” She was a pi­o­neer in women’s rights and, Vikan­der noted, fought her par­ents to ad­vance her ed­u­ca­tion.

In his film, Brit­tain “wants to earn a place in the world,” Kent said. “She wants her voice to be heard. That’s been a strug­gle for gays, black peo­ple and women. How do you get the right to be heard? That’s her jour­ney”

“Tes­ta­ment of Youth” is also heart-on-your-sleeve ro­man­tic thanks to the pal­pa­ble chem­istry be­tween Vikan­der and “Game of Thrones” Kit Har­ing­ton as her fi­ancé, the bril­liant as­pir­ing poet Roland Leighton, who en­lists in the army.

“We ab­so­lutely clicked,” Har­ing­ton said. “There was some­thing won­der­ful work­ing with Ali­cia. She is such a fierce actress on screen.”

Though Vikan­der read “Tes­ta­ment of Youth,” she re­lied on Brit­tain’s pub­lished di­aries and cor­re­spon­dence with Leighton, her brother and two friends who were sol­diers.

“Tes­ta­ment of Youth,” Vikan­der said, was writ­ten by a mother at age 30, look­ing back on her life and try­ing to put into words how she felt at 15. By con­trast, the actress said, “the di­aries and the let­ters are ac­tu­ally writ­ten by the woman of the age I was play­ing. The let­ters and the di­aries were di­rect link to what she was like back then.”

While shoot­ing battle scenes, Har­ing­ton of­ten con­tem­plated if he could have dealt with the war.

“I thought maybe if I grew up in that gen­er­a­tion, I could have,” he said. But prob­a­bly not to­day. “There was one point in the film­ing when I was ly­ing in the field soak­ing wet and freez­ing,” Har­ing­ton said. Though cos­tumed girls pro­vided a hot towel and tea, he was still mis­er­able. “There as a mo­ment when I stepped back and thought, you are do­ing this in con­trolled cir­cum­stances for one day, and th­ese men went through this heavy gun fire and threat of death ev­ery day for four years.“

Brit­tain died in 1970 at age 76. Her daugh­ter Shirley Wil­liams, 84, is a noted Bri­tish politi­cian and ed­u­ca­tor.

“I was in­vited by Shirley Wil­liams to high tea at the House of Lords, where she still works as a politi­cian,” Vikan­der said. “I was ter­ri­fied and didn’t sleep that night.”

Vikan­der re­called Wil­liams say­ing, “You’re the Swedish girl play­ing my mother.”

“She was so sweet, and we spent the af­ter­noon talk­ing about her mother,” Vikan­der said. “She and her fam­ily came on the set. It meant a lot to me.”

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