- Written by
- Juliette Towhidi
- Directed by
- James Kent
- Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington
Three-quarters of a million British soldiers died in the First World War, leaving behind parents, families and, in particular, a generation of single young women bereft, in a phenomenon known as "the surplus women." Among them was Vera Brittain, and in Testament of Youth we meet her (Alicia Vikander) as the boom of V-E Day fireworks echoes like gunfire in the distance. She takes refuge in a chapel, among other weeping and praying women.
As we soon see in flashback, which Brittain detailed in the beloved 1933 memoir on which the film is based, is how deeply and personally the war dramatically altered lives. In 1913, an afternoon tea and Victoria sponge was the daily routine of the upper-middle classes. We see Vera rolling in the Derbyshire hills with her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his fey school chum Victor (Colin Morgan).
Everyone is on the cusp of adulthood and a new modern era, one that's so energetic and alive that even the wallpapers barely contain the vitality – the flowers seem to spread through their posh home into every room, with vases bursting with voluptuous blooms.
Edward's poetry-penning chum Roland Leighton (Game of Thrones' dearly departed Jon Snow himself, Kit Harington, who once again finds himself in a doomed love story) joins them one weekend and Vera quickly falls in love.
Vera's preoccupations in the beginning are for herself – fighting to earn a place among the young men, not as the expected role of wife and mother, but as a student. She is self-taught and sits the entrance exam at Somerville College, Oxford, but unexpectedly faces prejudice from other women, too – she stands out among the would-be pupils who, unlike her feminine wardrobe, dress themselves in the junior suffragette uniform of drab brown tweeds, shirts and ties.
Still, the future looks bright. Even the new war seems promising, particularly since it's heavy on the patriotism, and sold as a grand, glamorous adventure. "I have a dust-and-ashes feeling about it," Roland, now her fiancé, says. Soon all live in dread of a visit from the telegram boy.
In what is a well-acted but fairly typical prestige period drama, it's Vikander's nuanced performance as the resolute but still-vulnerable Vera who gives the film its depth. She's in nearly every scene, since it's her story, and is chastened but not cowed by criticism or sadness. When it's not just a man's world, she finds that she constantly has to prove herself, and is judged harshly by the older women whose independence has been hard won.
There are memorable moments, such as the reading of Roland's Vilanelle poem, made famous from his published letters to Vera, and images, such as the train pulling away from the platform leaving a gaggle of women in funnel-cake hats and a cloud of fluttering handkerchiefs behind. The young men, too, begin to feel disillusioned from their respective roles. But it's unfortunate that the women in Vera's life who experience love and similarly devastating loss aren't also given opportunity to have more than one dimension (the oblivious mother, the firebrand feminist, the disapproving matron).
Vera keenly regrets her blindness to the realities of war, especially since just as Edward had lobbied her father to let her try for Oxford, she pleaded with him to let her brother "be a man" and enlist. For the rest of her life, Brittain would regret succumbing to propaganda.
The unthinkingly blind patriotism manifests itself in the approving platitude, "You look so handsome," which is uttered several times in the movie, tellingly, as the only thing the women can find to say, because it's what they've been conditioned to think.
It's only when the dashing uniforms return, soiled, bloodied and wrapped in paper, that the reality hits home. Even then, it's hard to find the words to give one another comfort and instead, the mothers, sisters and sweethearts talk in more propaganda – untruths about noble and painless deaths.
As Roland wrote to her in one of his letters, "I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful. Modern warfare is merely a trade." A scene early in the movie of Vera at her childhood swimming hole is reprised later for contrast, a telling symmetry after Vera has placed fresh flowers throughout the house to simulate normalcy. But the hope of the place is drained out, and the blooms are only reminders of all that has been lost.