I must admit to never having heard of Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth before this adaptation, yet I discover it’s a beloved and important World War One text: beloved because its sweeping story, although completely true, is such a classically perfect tale of love and loss; important because it’s a war story told be a Vera, rather than a Tom, Dick or Harry.
Vera’s femaleness is central to this telling of the “great” war; it’s the homeland story, the nurse’s story, and, in particular, the lover’s story. Vera was a forward-thinking young woman determined to never marry but instead go to university and become a writer. She had to convince her father to let her sit her entrance exams, and she got into Oxford. During this period, she fell in love with one of her brother’s friends, Roland, whose mother was emblematic of Vera’s ambitions, being a writer, albeit a married one, and the household breadwinner. As Vera enters Oxford, the war breaks out, and Roland and her brother go off to war, joined at various points by their best friends. In an effort to do her part – and, most interesting psychologically, in an effort to do anything she could to protect her boys, she volunteered as a nurse. How the war affected these five is the stuff of true drama, and if you wrote it as fiction it may stretch credulity. As the truth lies, however, the resulting events truly do stand as a testament of youth and war.
As Vera, the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is astonishingly good (and astonishingly English, aside from her dark complexion, which is neither particularly English nor particularly Swedish). She’s going to become a mega, mega international movie star – the kind who will win Oscars; she’s already got the lead in Ex Machina under her belt, was in last year’s Australian film Son of a Gun, and has five major films completed and rolling out over the next few months. She’s in every scene save for a few flashes to the trenches, and she carries the whole movie on her very slender frame. I believed her every moment. Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) does nicely with Roland, and lots of familiar faces show up like Dominic West and Emily Watson as her parents and Miranda Richardson as her Oxford mentor.
Director James Kent, who has made a lot of television but is debuting here on the big screen, allows himself a little too much indulgence on poetic images, which swell the film to two hours and ten minutes, which is perhaps fifteen minutes too many. Some shots, including running alongside departing trains and one directly honouring / stolen from Gone With The Wind, are so old-school as to seem hackneyed, and the film does feel very old fashioned in many ways, delighting too much in costumes, diffuse light and a trinkly, wrinkly piano-heavy score. But Vikander’s performance, and the ultimate effect of Brittain’s story, are powerful enough to raise the film above its own shortcomings. It’s ultimately a powerful and memorable experience.