Interview: Testament of Youth director James Kent discusses his Vera Brittain biopic

Hotly tipped: Alicia Vikander and her co-star Kit Harington

First-time director James Kent won rave reviews for his Vera Brittain biopic when it premiered at the London Film Festival. A week ahead of its UK release, he talks to City A.M.

Why did you want to direct a Vera Brittain biopic?
Vera Brittain is a role model for young people who want to get their beliefs heard by the world. Her example encourages us to stick to what we believe in and override the obstacles that life throws at us. That’s a brilliant message on this 100th anniversary of World War One.
How did her daughter (the politician Dame Shirley Williams) assist you in the film-making process?
She is Brittain’s only surviving child. She i­­s also an important politician in her own right and has inherited a lot of Brittain’s opinions. I think there’s a lot of Vera in Shirley. We had to get her consent but also we wanted her to come on the road with us. Thankfully she loved the film. She read the script and came on the shoot and met the actors... she gave Alicia Vikander insights into her mother so she was very important.

Director James Kent

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (Michael Fassbender’s new beau) is tipped for great things. How was it working with her?
She’s going to be huge – the next Natalie Portman – and she’s got bigger films than ours coming up. This is her first major English language lead and she is extraordinary in the role. She has enormous emotional reservoirs. She is massively cinematic. She could have been a silent movie star.
Did she find it hard to speak in an English accent?
Because she’s a ballet dancer she’s very serious about doing her homework. She listened to Radio 4 a lot. No one seems to have mentioned it was a problem that we got a Scandinavian actress and it was important we went for the best actress for the part.
What difficulties did you encounter as a first-time director?
Fortunately, the producer of the film shared my view of the world and she felt I’d be the right director for the project. It was difficult to convince some people because £7m is a big budget for a debut director. But in the end the BBC, Lionsgate and the BFI listened to the producers, listened to the pitch and went with the decision, so the film happened because my view of the world mirrored what the producers wanted.
What would Vera make of the current state of the world?
She would be really angry and depressed. She was anti-conflict but she was particularly anti people being ignorant about what conflict might mean and sliding into war without really understanding what war might mean. The 2003 Iraq war for example, the consequences of that, the human scale of loss. She would have been angry.
Testament of Youth is in cinemas 16 January.

Related articles