Testament of Youth (and five of the best films about women at war)
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of films dedicated to the subject of war, but the vast majority of these feature men as their chief protagonists and, in general, there are far fewer films that depict the role of women in conflict.
However, one such film arrives on DVD & Blu-Ray next week (May 25th) in the form of Testament of Youth, a feature debut for director James Kent. The book of the same name on which the film is based, written by Vera Brittain, is considered one of the most important memoirs written about the first world war, particularly for the way it illustrates the impact of the war on women and the wider civilian population.
Kent's film stars Alicia Vikander in the role of Brittain, a strong-willed, independent young woman who defies her family and the conventions of the time by enrolling at Oxford University's Somerville College to study English literature. However, just a year into her degree, war breaks out and her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) - along with her fiancee Roland (Kit Harrington) and several of their friends - are drafted into the army and sent to the front lines.
Brittain defers her studies and enlists in the army as a nurse, serving in a voluntary unit providing field care to the injured and dying soldiers. Her experiences on the front line would see her lose both her fiancee and her brother to the conflict, laying the foundations for a lifetime of activism dedicated to speaking out on the causes of feminism and pacifism.
Brittain's book is a powerful and often harrowing eyewitness document of the Great War, one that has already been adapted for the screen in a five part series broadcast some 35 years ago by the BBC, but Kent's film offers a new and vivid take on a story of love, loss and remembrance, aided by some terrific performances from the film's talented cast.
You can find the trailer for Testament of Youth below, and while you're waiting for the film to arrive next week we've picked five other great films depicting women in wartime.
The English Patient
Director Anthony Minghella earned himself an Oscar for this wartime drama, as did Juliette Binoche for her role as Hana, a French-Canadian nurse working out of an Italian monastery and tending to the injuries of an English speaking burns victim (Ralph Fiennes) who cannot remember his name. As much a story about romance as it is about the casualties of war, Binoche's character has lost everything she loves to the war, and while Hana is never as overtly political as Vera Brittain, this beautifully made film offers an insight into the role of female nurses in WWII and apart from anything else it's a thoroughly absorbing story.
Adapted from a Sebastian Faulks novel of the same name (which is in turn based on the real-life exploits of two British secret service operatives, Nancy Wake and Pearl Cornioley), Gillian Anderson's film stars Cate Blanchett as a young Scottish woman who winds up working for the French Resistance during WWII when her RAF pilot boyfriend goes missing in action. Also starring Michael Gambon, Helen McCrory and Billy Crudup, the film can be a bit formulaic at times but the cinematography is beautiful and it's a refreshing account of a woman occupying a wartime role other than that of a nurse or a grieving housewife.
Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
This German film from director Mark Rothemund uses unpublished interrogation transcripts to piece together the last days of one of Germany's most famous anti-Nazi figures. Sophie Scholl was a member of The White Rose, a non-violent resistance group founded at the University of Munich during the early years of the second world war. Along with her brother Hans, Scholl was convicted of high treason for distributing anti-war leaflets and eventually executed by guillotine at the hands of the Gestapo, aged just 21. Rothemund's powerful film reconstructs her interrogation over the course of several days, depicting a young woman whose strength and bravery never waver in the face of certain death. Julia Jentsch (Downfall, The Edukators) puts in a breathtaking performance in the role of Scholl and even though the sheer injustice of her story is enough to make your blood boil, this is essential viewing.
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow's film details the long and complex investigation by the CIA that eventually led to the capture and assassination of Osama bin Laden, and although Zero Dark Thirty is a fairly dramatised account of events, the film's central character Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, is known to be based on an unnamed operative at the Central Intelligence Agency. The film details how Maya pushed for the approach of following a network of couriers that were thought be delivering communications to the former al-Qaeda leader by hand, an approach that eventually led to the discovery of bin Laden's hideout at a heavily guarded complex in northeastern Pakistan. The film garnered some criticism from some of the more conservative media outlets for its vivid depiction of controversial interrogation techniques, such as the opening scene featuring waterboarding at a secret CIA prison, but that only serves as a testament to how stirringly powerful Zero Dark Thirty is and, as strong female characters go, they don't come much tougher than Maya.
This superb film from French director Claire Denis stars Isabel Huppert as the French owner of a coffee plantation in Africa who finds herself caught up in the outbreak of a civil war. When the French army pulls out, she finds herself unable to imagine a life back in France and decides to stay, attempting to retain control of the plantation and employ the locals in order to save her crop. Huppert is nothing short of Oscar-worthy in this complex role, depicting a woman who identifies more with the Africans' culture than her own, apparently unaware of her own role in some of the problems they are facing. The director's decision to leave the country unnamed hints at a film that is more about the role of colonialism in general than any particular event, but underpinning this tale of oblivious white privilege is a tour de force performance by Huppert, one that is a million miles from your garden variety 'women in wartime' role.