Testament of Youth begins on Armistice Day, the ending moments of the First World War, as seen from home in England: as news spreads and celebrations spill out onto the street, the camera trains itself on Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander), who remains resolutely sombre, slipping through the gleeful milieu with without joining into the happy fray.
She looks like a shell-shocked soldier, more perplexed by the idea of peacetime than willing to join in its tidings. And, presumably, that’s exactly how the real Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth, based on Brittain’s real memoir, trudges through the “The Great War,” emphasizing the damage it did to that generation by way of its peripheral horrors. I say peripheral not because it’s unwillingness to examine the direct, warzone atrocities of war—it does—but because its focus almost totally avoids the battlefield in doing so: Testament of Youth is about the men and women left at home, as well as the wounded, which proves to be a sturdy way of spinning the usual “War is Hell” narrative.
After that first scene, we flash back to more idyllic times: Brittain a headstrong idealist, defiantly worming her way into Oxford in spite of her father’s protests and its difficult entrance exam. But just as it comes time to head off to calss, alongside her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and budding love interest Roland (Kit Harington, or Game of Thrones‘ Jon Snow), Archduke Franz Ferdinand takes a bullet and Europe’s engulfed in turmoil. From 2015, the foreshadowing is obvious: everyone thinks it’ll be short and sweet. “How many generations get the chance to be involved in something like this?” Roland says on the outset; “Let him be a man,” Vera argues with her father, for letting Edward serve too.
Of course, they don’t know what the trenches hold, how many years the conflict will drag on. It’s a look at war that sees innocence quickly curdle into anguish, and Vera’s perhaps first to pick up on the small cues of what’s unfolding: Roland doesn’t write her back from the front-lines, and when he does, it’s in curt military-speak that’s a far cry from the poems he’d written her before. When Roland comes back for his first leave, he’s already profoundly different, haunted by what he’s seen, but he only shows his emotional wounds to Vera—to the boys, it’s all glory stories, told in chuckles, of crawling above the trench to fix barbed wire so close to German lines he could hear them whispering.
Testament of Youth‘s strength as a film lies in moments like those, the ones that illustrate those dual narratives of war, glory and horror: that even as the First World War stretched onwards, those involved attempted to maintain some sort of glorious narrative about it all, even as it hollowed its participants out from the core and gutted their families left back home.
The casting here makes delivering on that back-and-forth easy: Vikander’s adept at her slow slide from dreaming idealist to hardened, grave realist, while Egerton offers warmth as a man desperately trying to maintain his boyish self while facing a parade of horrors. Harington’s Roland is more easily affected by everything he sees, but the actor is less affecting in the role.
Vera’s eventually driven away from Oxford, becoming a front-line nurse out of sheer need to feel like she’s helping the ones she loves: bracing for loss after loss that, slowly, surely, come with frustrating inevitability. And while the movie doesn’t shift far from those marks, it simply works its way through the costs from the eyes of those not on the battlefield. Here, that proves to be more than enough.
Testament of Youth
Directed by James Kent