The new film “Testament of Youth” is based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling reminiscences of the Great War. Hers was the first widely read first-person account of the women’s experience, as World War I stole so many young British men from their homes and hearths and sent them to bloody deaths.
The film begins with a coming-of-age story. Young Vera (Alicia Vikander), her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and their friend (and Vera’s almost-suitor) Victor (Colin Morgan) are splashing about, carefree, in a lake near Vera’s family residence in Buxton. Vera would like more than anything to follow her brother and his friend back to Oxford for the next term, and attend the ladies’ college there. Upon arriving home, however, she learns that money that would have paid for a semester of academia has been used to buy her a piano. Outraged, Vera makes a scene in front of her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) and stomps to her room. While her father worries Oxford will turn her into a “bluestocking,” Vera wants more than to “hitch herself to a man.” But at this point in her life, the best she can hope for is independent study and a proper marriage.
Then Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), Edward’s other friend from Oxford, arrives for a visit and suddenly Vera finds herself in kinship with a man who shares her passion for poetry and ideas. Though their relationship begins in a rather prickly way, they suddenly warm to each other, exchanging letters even as Roland returns to college for another term of study.
During these early sequences, the film not only establishes Vera’s independent and intelligent nature, but also hints at her romantic ideals. She is very much a woman who will be wooed by words. It also establishes the wonderful, tender bond between Vera and her younger brother, who becomes her champion in convincing Vera’s conservative father to let Vera take the entrance examinations at Oxford and allow her to go. Her summer is spent imagining courting Roland (with whom correspondence has now blossomed into courtship) and preparing for academic life.
But at the same time, Edward Brittain and his friends are enlisting for a European conflict that everyone expects will be resolved by Christmas.
War is harrowing for Vera, and not just because it separates her from Roland. After spending days reading the names of the fallen in casualty lists, she feels a sense of urgency. Wanting desperately to do her part for the men doing their parts, and not wanting to just stay home and knit socks for them, she becomes a nurse, first on the home front and then in France.
I was taken by the language and poetry of the film; the fact that many lines have stuck with me two weeks after my viewing of the film says a lot. This innate poetical language lends itself well to the prevalent theme of longing for sanctuary. Edward reads a letter from his comrade Jeff, who speaks to finding the peace of the sun’s reflection in the still water that soaks the trench holes. Vera retreats to a church on Armistice Day in order to find solace as the mounting celebrations outside clash with the restlessness she feels. And Roland writes a poem describing the vivid colors of the French fields even as he is wrenched farther and farther away from home and all he knows.
But I was also struck by the spiritual threads woven through the film, including the theme of forgiveness. After the war, Vera speaks at a rally against the Germans and recalls a unifying experience between herself and a dying German soldier, a man whose language she spoke and understood. She explains that “all grief is the same” and that the dying soldier’s last words did not make him an enemy, but rather stirred her compassion. The German soldier she remembers spoke of love for a young woman and of forgiveness, and Vera, who herself has suffered great loss from the war, is able to express that common ground and entreat the congregation listening to forego revenge. For revenge only breeds more terror and hate, while understanding and forgiveness breed love. It’s a powerful Christian theme in a well-crafted film.
“Testament of Youth” is a strong retrospective on a world-changing event. Vera is a woman in a world on the brink: Social classes and women’s roles were changing, and everything was leading to the era of modernism. But it is stronger still in its faithful depiction of blood, death, and chaos. So powerful was Vera’s encounter with her brother, wounded and on a stretched amidst the thousands of soldiers at a rudimentary hospital, that I was almost inconsolable—thinking of my own brother and able, thanks to the film’s remarkable storytelling power, to put myself in Vera’s shoes.
The book “Testament of Youth” is renowned for giving a face and character, not to mention a beguiling warmth, upon a generation wrenched apart by violence and misery. The film conveys this well, drawing us to imagine how we might react in the same circumstance. We’re touched by the common humanity that Vera finds even among enemies, and left grateful for the sacrifices made so that, to this day, we could benefit from the freedoms and ideals brought by the era that changed everything.
Image copyright Sony Pictures Classics. “Testament of Youth” is rated PG-13 for thematic material including bloody and disturbing war-related images.
Rachel McMillan is a historical novelist in Toronto. She blogs at A Fair Substitute for Heaven.