Testament of Youth, a film from England directed by James Kent, is based on a 1933 book by Vera Brittain, recalling her experiences as a young woman in the early 20th century, and how her life was affected by the worst war ever fought up to that point, The Great War, as it was called—we now call it World War One. It’s significant that she titled the book a testament rather than just a memoir, because its purpose was to make clear how very evil war is, and this book was a huge success at the time. It faded from popular awareness when the Second World War made pacifism unpopular again, only to emerge again finally, after her death in 1970, when the issue of war and militarism once again became an urgent one for many people. There was a British miniseries based on it in the late 70s. And now, a hundred years after the Great War raged over Europe, we have this new film version, starring Alicia Vikander as Vera.
After a brief but stirring prologue that takes place on Armistice Day, where we see Vera moving furiously among cheering crowds, herself not cheering or celebrating—we are back before the war at the estate of Vera’s well-to-do-family. She’s having a swim with her brother Edward, played by Taron Egerton, and one of his friends. The friend clearly has eyes for her, but as we soon find, Vera’s sights are set on other goals besides men. Despite the opposition of her father, she wants to take the entrance exam for Oxford, and she has a secret desire to be a writer. In those days, as is vividly portrayed in the film, headstrong and ambitious women were not enxouraged. In her case, the fact that her parents, played here by Dominic West and Emily Watson, are loving and indulgent towards her, gives her more of a chance. Enter another friend of her brother’s, Roland Leighton, played by Kit Harington, now famous for work on the TV show Game of Thrones. Initial tension gives way to eventual romance between Vera and Roland, but thankfully that does not mean that she gives up on her ambition.
If you know the history, it’s not hard to see where the story is going. There’s nothing innovative about the film’s style—it has all the hallmarks of romantic drama, with the sweeping pictorial sense we expect from a period film, but without the usual feeling of nostalgia.
When the war breaks out, Edward and his friends all end up joining the army. When Vera confronts Roland, he asks: What would other people think if I were to hold back while my friends are risking their lives? There’s no good answer to that. It will only last a few months, others say. Alas, many people thought so. What actually happened was the virtual destruction of an entire generation of young men. Testament of Youth is about the terrible first-hand experience of that destruction.
The 26-year-old Alice Vikander is the film’s solid emotional core. Her remarkable performance takes the film to another level. Eventually, Vera Brittain volunteered as a nurse on the front, and a scene with a dying German soldier is one of the dramatic high points. In the end, we experience her evolution into a feminist and a pacifist as inevitable. A century later, we can look back and see that awful war as just one of the early lessons of savagery that has scarred the history of modern times. And may the voices of warning be heeded.