James Kent is not yet a household name, although many will be familiar with his works. The director has previously dedicated most of his time to documentaries, with his moving portrayal of the events of September 11th 2001 in the form of 9/11: Phone Calls from the Tower gaining him perhaps his largest pre-cinema audience so far.
This has changed considerably of late. After venturing into the world of TV Drama with The White Queen, James has most recently set his sights on the big screen; 2015 saw the cinematic release of Testament of Youth. A biopic of Somerville alumna Vera Brittain based upon her famous memoir, the film follows her as she makes her way from her family home to the dreaming spires and onwards to France.
This is not the first time Vera’s story has been retold. “I remember the television series when I was a teenager”, James admitted when I spoke to him about what drew him to direct such a poignant tribute to Vera, “It was powerful – Vera is such a feisty, strong individual. It felt like a very inspirational story for a new generation to find.” With the centenary of the First World War currently being very much on the forefront of the minds of the nation, James sees cinema and war drama – a clique he is now very much part of – as crucial to contemporary understanding of the past. “I think it emotionalises the experience”, he mused. “If you look at the poppies at the tower of London, or the music that’s been written, or the Church services, they don’t necessarily take you into the pain and the suffering of one individual or emotionalise that experience in a very singular way.” By contrast, his dramatised version of Vera’s life is very much focussed on her, with actress Alicia Vikander (Vera Brittain) appearing in every scene of the film. “To concentrate on one person who lost so much, and was by no means unique in that loss, I think that does bring a new perspective with it. It sits within the landscape of memory – the film doesn’t displace more epic artistic endeavours that have taken place in this last year, but I think it brings you face to face with acute, private, and personal suffering of one person. The one stands for the universal.”
I asked James what made him want to direct Vera’s story, rather than reworking the life of one of the famous War Poets, such as Robert Graves, and seeing the suffering of the battlefield first hand. He doesn’t hesitate when answering, and it is obvious that this is a tale he is passionate about. “I think in cinema now there is a real appetite for telling women’s stories. If you look at the way that, finally,” – here James laughs incredulously – “producers are focussing on 50 per cent of the cinema going audience, I think there’s a desire to tell women’s stories more than there has been before. Vera Brittain is such an incredibly iconic voice in a universal rite of passage story of young girls wanting to achieve in life. For people watching this film and experiencing Vera’s journey, there’s a real tonic in seeing her achieve what she sets out to do – which is go to Oxford, start writing Testament of Youth, and forge an independent career from a provincial upbringing. That’s inspirational to us all.”
“Unlike Robert Graves, who’s another man dictating an agenda, I think Vera is a unique voice. When you’re telling stories, you’re always looking for the unique in the world – not to diminish the men,” James is quick to add, “but they get a lot of coverage and the women really don’t. It’s important to address that balance”.
That’s not to say that the War Poets are totally absent from the film – Roland Leighton (portrayed by Kit Harington of Game of Thrones fame) and Vera were engaged, and the film covers the entirety of their tragic relationship. “My struggle was to balance Roland against the other boys” James confessed, referring to Edward Brittain and Victor Richardson, played by upcoming actor Taron Egerton and Merlin favourite Colin Morgan respectively. “You want people to commit to the love story – ‘cause it is a romantic love story. It’s a big part of her experience – she carried those violets for the rest of her life in the locket around her neck – so she never quite forgot.” James explained, somewhat blurring the boundaries of the film and the real in a way he repeatedly did, and I later realised was a reflection of his investment into the truth of the film. “She was always struggling to come to terms with it. That struggle, along with trying to make Edward still count, was the biggest balancing act I played in the film.”
This struggle was perhaps made more difficult by the enormity of the casting of Kit in relation to Alicia, who is still very much a rising star. “Her performance was stunning”, James gushed, “We were a bit worried because she’s Swedish, but she’s very dedicated to her voice and dialogue coaching, so I think we got through that okay!” he joked. Colin and Kit also brought about some difficulties for James, with the two at most risk of being typecast by viewers. “We were worried less about Colin than Kit”, the director weighed up, “Merlin was a little while ago, and Game of Thrones is still very much around. I was worried, but Kit is a very fine actor, and he brings an audience from Game of Thrones, but we balanced it up – he was just the best actor for the part. You have to go with that as a director, you have to go with who’s not going to let the film down.”
Although the span of the film covers arguably the most formative years of Vera’s life, Oxford is one of the most important cruxes for the film. As a result, the crew spent time here shooting for the film; “Oxford was great. It’s stunning, a stunning, massive film set.”
“It was a bit of a thrill to come back as a film director!” James laughed. Having been a student at Queen’s College, it’s easy to imagine the excitement he felt returning to the sitting and “owning Radcliffe Square for an afternoon”. Despite Vera’s ties to Somerville (her daughter Shirley Williams would also attend the college), the crew filmed in Merton. “The problem with Somerville is they’ve modernised quite a lot”, James explained. “It made it very difficult for us to film in there without a lot of special effects. We were sorry not to film there, we wanted to because you want to be authentic, but we opted for Merton because you don’t need to change anything from the Victorian Era.”
The representation of Oxford, especially the way the female colleges worked, is sure to shock a lot of current students. “It’s a 100 years ago, there were just two or three girl’s colleges and they were very chaperoned, [Vera’s] mother would monitor the phone calls – that’s the truth. It’s so radically different from now, so for many young girls its an eye opener into an almost medieval way of confining women. Oxford was the most emancipated women got as they challenged the system once they got there, but it was still very much a controlled world for women.”
The strength of Testament of Youth lies very much in the beauty of its cinema. It’s incredibly well shot, and its subtly breathtaking. Powerful shots of the English countryside are contrasted with the iconic Oxford buildings, before the action takes Vera to the rain and destruction of the Front Line, as well as the chaos of a military hospital. James explained the conscious effort to control the cinematography: “There was certainly a half-way point when the look begins to change. For the first hour, with the famous summer of 1914, the light and colour and nature are under a canopy of irony really, knowing what’s about to happen. I’m a big fan of Jane Campion’s The Piano, and the way she uses nature, so that was an influence. That kind of overt romanticism fuelled the first hour, then once war breaks out and you fear for the lives of these young men, the film darkens. The palette gets browner and greyer, and increasingly the lense gets tighter. By the time she has her breakdown at Oxford you’re really close in on Vera, and that was the visual journey I wanted to take the audience on.”
It’s a kind of creative freedom that documentary directors aren’t privy to. “You’re more free with a film to mould the facts into fiction; it’s an accepted rule that to make a drama work you can’t be true to all the facts.” James explained. “We were liberated to that extent, but film is a much more complicated animal in terms of logistics. Documentaries are my first love, but I thought it was time to challenge myself and move into film and work with actors, rather than real people. I’m really glad I made that move.”
Be that as it may, James is very aware of the limitations of film as a medium. “I think television is increasingly like cinema, which is difficult for cinema. These mid-budget period films are finding it difficult. Television is intruding on cinema’s path, so as a director you’ve got to somehow find the cinematic in the performances.” This is definitely something that James Kent has managed to do, yet he has also, very successfully, managed to find the cinematic within himself and within Vera’s story, and brought it to the surface with Testament of Youth.