Testament of Youth, based on the 1933 bestselling memoir of English writer Vera Brittain, could be subtitled The Making of a Pacifist. War is hell, and Brittain saw it firsthand as a volunteer nurse during World War I.
In James Kent’s lush film adaptation — a must for all Downton Abbey fans — Vera is played by the expressive Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, A Royal Wedding, Anna Karenina) as a fresh-faced beauty with formidable intellectual depths. She wants to attend Oxford’s Somerville College against the wishes of her father (Dominic West), who instead buys her a piano and earns her defiant wrath. Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) begs their father to allow Vera to sit for the entrance exam (women weren’t able to earn degrees at this time), and he finally consents.
Edward does her another favor, bringing his friends Victor and Roland home for a visit. Victor (Colin Morgan) is shyly smitten with Vera, but budding poet Roland (Kit Harington) catches her eye, even though she has vowed she won’t marry, and before long the two are exchanging confidences and smiles and notes pushed under the door.
Under normal circumstances, Vera would be on the verge of a wonderful life: She’s allowed to educate herself, and she’s fallen in love with Roland (Harington’s sweet grin is something of a joy to see, considering that his role on Game of Thrones doesn’t lend itself to smiling, especially now). But war with Germany breaks out, and soon the boys are abandoning their studies to join up, and what can possibly protect them in the trenches of France?
Well-acted and sincere, Testament of Youth is chastely romantic in its treatment of the relationship between Vera and Roland, but the film doesn’t hold back on showing the horror of trench warfare. Vera leaves Oxford, too, to work as a nurse, and the bloody scenes in the mud and gore of the makeshift hospitals contrast harshly with the earlier bucolic paradise in which she wandered with these young men, all of whom she loves. That affection is rendered useless by circumstances: In one wrenching scene, the camera follows Vera out of the hospital, flies over the roof and shows us what she’s about to face: hundreds of bloodied, maimed, filthy bodies. What good can love do in a world that allows such savagery?
The film follows Vera to Armistice Day and leaves us knowing this fiery woman will not be silent on the subject of war (she went on to become a feminist and a pacifist). But Testament of Youth isn’t a typical biopic; it’s a heartfelt manual on forging ahead. “All of us are surrounded by ghosts,” a fellow student tells Vera after the war. “Now we have to learn to live with them.” With her searing memoir — and now with the help of this well-crafted film — Brittain proves that we can.
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson.
Director: James Kent.
Screenwriter: Juliette Towhidi. Based on the memoir by Vera Brittain.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 129 minutes. Thematic material including bloody and disturbing war-related images. Playing in Miami-Dade: Aventura, Sunset, Tower; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Shadowood, Delray.