War movies are of men. Historical war movies, more so. Which is why Testament of Youth, the first feature film dramatization of the famed World War I memoir by Vera Brittain, an auxiliary nurse, bestselling author, and lifelong pacifist, comes as a fresh perspective even in 2015. With an elegant and gritty performance by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Vera and what can only be described as poetic direction by James Kent, Testament of Youth is a haunting and unsparing elegy to a war that, a century later, still has much to teach us about love, loss, and—believe it or not—feminism.
It is the summer of 1914. Vera is enjoying the vacation with her brother Edward (Taron Egerton, Kingsman) and his schoolmate Victor (Colin Morgan, “Merlin”). In an outburst from Vera against her conventional-minded parents, we learn that she aspires to study at Oxford rather than to find a suitor. Just as she declares her intentions to never marry, we meet Roland (Kit Harington, “Game of Thrones”), the third member of Edward’s trio. Roland shares Vera’s dream of becoming a writer and, in their first moment of tenderness, tells her, “You must write.”
Meanwhile, Edward convinces their father to let Vera sit the Oxford entrance exams. She is finally able to attend her dream school alongside her beau and brother when the declaration of war suddenly renders this impossible. Leaning out the train window as his squadron leaves for France, Roland begs Vera, “Write. Write.” The request, once connecting them through their art, now serves as their only literal connection. As we follow Vera’s lonely journey through school and nursing, it is these letters and occasional poems that tie together her narrative with those of her displaced loved ones.
Writing also serves as some of the most intense emotional fodder in this largely unsentimental epic. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes—which also showcases some of its best acting—Vera asks a distant Roland if he has written poetry lately, to which he scoffs, “Oh, for God’s sake!” The heated contempt on Harington’s face, contrasted with Vikander’s desperate candor and fierce resolve, transform into deep, deep sadness for both when Vera physically forces Roland to meet her eyes. The moment builds to a heartrending climax that manages to steer clear of melodrama, thanks to Vikander’s grounded performance.
Testament of Youth is not just a testament to romantic love. Juliette Towhidi’s screenplay gives as much weight to Vera’s strong bond with her brother Edward, who centers many of the emotional climaxes, as it does to her romantic life. (In real life, Vera and Edward share a resting place.) Though Egerton himself is not given as many chances to shine as Harington, we see the siblings’ closeness in Vikander’s openness and visibly relaxed body language when she is near or thinking of Edward, as well as in the some canny editing that places brother and sister in conversation even when apart.
With a symbolism-conscious screenplay and detail-oriented cinematography, Testament of Youth is rife with potent imagery. One such focus is on hands—hands stroking beloved faces, hands tending to gaping wounds, hands clawing at mud to mourn the lives lost in the trenches. Rather than blood-and-thunder shouting, this quiet but compelling film captures horror and despair through Kent’s attention to detail and action as well as his strong cast’s firm control over the affect of each scene. Vikander’s performance, in particular, is understated and raw, never resorting to histrionics, even when Vera is in utmost distress.
How do we communicate agonizing grief without screaming? How does a work of art capture the terrors of war without a single battle scene? How can we remember lives lost to violence without dwelling on the violence? None of these questions have simple solutions, but Vera Brittain found an answer—and, fortunately for us, so has Testament of Youth.
Testament of Youth is a testament to good film making, one that you can purchase on DVD and Blu-ray starting October 20.