The film’s release comes in the wave of commemorations of the centenary of the First World War. Although it’s now more than 80 years since the publication of Vera Brittain’s remarkable memoir recounting her experiences nursing soldiers wounded in the carnage, Testament of Youth, the tale the film tells is just as poignant.
Growing up in rural Derbyshire, Brittain rejected her middle-class parents’ ideas about a woman’s role and pleaded with her father to allow her to sit the Oxford entrance exam. She won a place yet her joy was short-lived as Brittain watched the men she loved (her brother Edward and admirer Roland Leighton) go off to war. To alleviate her sense of powerlessness, she gave up her university place and volunteered as nurse.
In director James Kent’s retelling of Testament of Youth, Brittain is beautifully portrayed by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander who conveys “the rapid change of a woman coming out of childhood to a massive amount of responsibility,” explains the film’s location supremo Charlie Thompson. Brittain moves from the safe, beautiful country estate of her Buxton youth and the grandeur of Oxford to bleak war barracks. “As an 18-year-old woman she probably rarely left her home,” says Thompson. The national parks, beaches and historic properties of the north of England double for the area surrounding Brittain’s home. Vera’s world is “a very enclosed, very safe and very tranquil, beautiful place,” says Thompson. “We set out to achieve the contrast of this safeness of the place of her youth, which gave Brittain everything that she is and was, to the grim harshness of war and the opening of her eyes to the rest of the world.”
Filming in beautiful woodlands, heritage railways and on magnificent coastline, the scenery offers a stark contrast to Brittain’s bleak tale, but highlights the true beauty of Britain…
NORTH YORK MOORS NATIONAL PARK “In a lot of youthful scenes at the beginning of the film, we see Roland, Edward [Vera’s brother] and Victor [a friend] walking here like the Three Musketeers,” explains location supremo Charlie Thompson. “The North York Moors National Park is really fantastic. It’s got everything from bleak landscape to beautiful green valleys and waterfalls. Egton Moor is an area of particular interest; we filmed here, close to the village of Egton. All these routes are open to the public.”
NORTH YORKSHIRE MOORS RAILWAY, PICKERING “The North Yorkshire Moors Railway is a really good day out,” says Thompson. “We used this setting for the panoramic train shots in the movie. Meanwhile, the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway is where Roland and Vera say goodbye. It’s full of steam engines and it’s fabulous fun for families.”
BRODSWORTH HALL Five miles north of Doncaster, this grand Victorian country house is an English Heritage property that seems to defy time. The inside has been virtually unchanged since the 1860s. “We used it for the interior of the Brighton hotel where Vera receives news about Roland at war,” says Thompson.
ROBIN HOOD’S BAY, NEAR WHITBY “Between Whitby and Scarborough, you’ll find Robin Hood’s Bay, which is very beautiful. We did a lot of filming on the beach, which provided backdrops for scenes in the film such as where Roland is flying his kite and when he returns from his first experience of the front. We looked at every single beach and stretch of accessible shoreline on the North Yorkshire coast, all of which had stunning features, but this one topped them all. We thought this was the ideal setting for Roland and Vera.”