When World War I breaks out it is Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) who convinces her father (Dominic West) to allow her sibling to join the Army. Brother Edward Brittain (Taron Egerton), family friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) and future fiancé Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) place their studies on hold as they depart for different training camps around the country ahead of their eventual deployment to the Western Front, leaving Vera to embark on life at the University of Oxford alone, having won a place for herself by impressing feminist academic Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson) in her entrance exam. However, as the war worsens Vera too decides that her talents are better used elsewhere, and enlists as a Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse, first in London, then Malta, then France. Alongside Hope (Hayley Atwell), she treats injured German soldiers sometimes within earshot of gunfire and mortar.
Based on the first instalment of Brittain’s own memoir, James Kent’s Testament of Youth dramatises the writer’s account of her life between the years of 1900-1925. Following a fleeting fast-forward to Armistice Day, the film opens with Edward tricking his smitten best friend into trying to save Vera’s life, regardless of the fact that it is in no way endangered. Despite his obvious interest in her, however, Vera has no intentions of marrying anyone, let alone Victor, instead planning to go to university like her brother and — as if that wasn’t controversial enough in pre-war Britain — begin a career as a writer. Enter Roland: a progressive poet who immediately wins a place in her heart. It’s a slow but evocative introduction to the characters, and gives the supporting cast time to shine before they are separated from Vera’s story by circumstance. Taron Egerton makes perhaps the largest impression during these earlier scenes, though by film’s end there is little doubt that it is Colin Morgan (of BBC One’s Merlin) who gives the most poignant performance.
This is Vera’s story, however, and as such it is naturally Vikander’s film. The Swedish actress — whose other credits so far include Anna Karenina, The Fifth Estate and Ex_Machina — delivers a performance that’s as impeccable as her English pronunciation. Strong and stubborn but stridently sympathetic, Vera is a fine and formidable heroine, and the sort of woman — a pacifist, but in no way passive — usually missing from war movies. She’s in good company too, with Richardson, Atwell and Emily Watson (as Vera’s mother) given lots to work with in their respective roles and each making the most of what screentime they have. Joanna Scanlan, meanwhile, is outstanding as Vera’s escort, first employed as comic relief but later recast as loyal ally. When Roland invites Vera to see him off to France, Aunt Belle — cockblocker extraordinaire — breaks character, facilitating their first kiss by ushering them into an empty train carriage and standing guard at the door. It’s a humourous moment, but the haunting sense of pathos is nevertheless unmistakable.
That said, Testament of Youth isn’t perfect, and the languid nature of the narrative means that it sometimes feels as though Vera is telling you her life story rather than a specific series of events. While her mastery of German — foreshadowed by her decision to writer her Oxford entrance essay in German instead of Latin — becomes important later on, other scenes serve no greater purpose whatsoever. The scene in the church at the beginning of the film, for instance, is completely pointless. There is also the issue of the poems themselves. Harington, as anyone who has watched Game of Thrones will be able to attest, is a perfectly capable actor, and he has a number of moving scenes as Vera’s first love — particularly once the war has started and he returns home on leave a changed man — but his poetry recitals sadly leave a lot to be desired. (As, it must be said, was the case with his voice work on How To Train Your Dragon 2.) The performances speak for themselves, and the direction, editing and cinematography are all equally effective in provoking an emotional response, but the decision to give voice to Vera and Roland’s correspondence is an unfortunate one. They’re neither very good or particularly touching.
Testament of Youth is everything that American Sniper isn’t: compassionate, comprehensive and completely unambiguous. Whereas Chris Kyle went to war to become a legend, Vera went to war to face up to reality. There are no heroes in war, that much we know, but that doesn’t mean no-man’s land can’t have a heroine instead.