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Testament of Youth

James Kent adapts Vera Brittain’s memoir of love and loss during World War I

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No time for romance: Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander
  • No time for romance: Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander

Testament of Youth begins Nov. 11, 1918, as the end of the Great War (later to be World War I) is being celebrated in the streets of Britain. But it’s clearly a day of anguish for one young woman, who ducks into a church, and reflects back to …

… the halcyon summer days of 1914, where in the pleasant, peaceful countryside, the woman, her brother and his pals toggle between goofing off and planning their futures. Vera (Alicia Vikander) wants to sit exams for Oxford, though her parents (Dominic West, Emily Watson) think higher education isn’t the route for a nice upper-middle-class girl. But she finds an ally in one of her brother’s friends: handsome Roland (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington), who agrees to swap poems while the lads are away at military school. Meanwhile, there are stirrings of trouble in Europe …

James Kent’s handsomely produced film is adapted from Vera Brittain’s eponymous 1933 book, a memoir based on her coming of age during the war years. While there have been many accounts of the war, Brittain’s was notable for relating its impact on the homefront, particularly illuminating the experiences of women. 

Even without the somewhat clunky foreshadowing of the film’s pre-war scenes — “At least you wouldn’t be buried alive in Buxton,” Vera tartly tells the young men — for us, it’s a painful wait until the inevitable. The war, which once seemed a grand adventure — Vera’s brother frets that if he doesn’t hurry he may miss it altogether — quickly grows horrific. Vera, now at Oxford, scans the newspaper’s multiple pages of tiny type listing the war dead; Roland, on leave, is already psychologically damaged; and soon, the deaths come.

Testament also flags as doubly distressing a strain of British stoicism that leaves those in Vera’s circle with few emotional outlets for their fears, grief and horror. Vera abandons Oxford (“Writing? That belongs to another life”), and becomes a nurse, eventually serving near the front. One senses that Vera joins up not out of patriotism, but simply to assuage her feelings of helplessness, and perhaps to counter the war’s futility by doing something

Kent’s film has all the usual, even predictable, hallmarks of a prestige British period production: The drama is relatively quiet, but the emotional impact is no less for it. The European losses in WWI were numbered, but incalculable — nearly an entire generation of young men killed, and each left behind survivors tormented by those lives unfinished. In that respect, Vera’s tale is no different from a million others, even today, and yet, that universality is what demands we take notice.


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