It was called the war to end all wars. Its effects were so cataclysmic, no one who lived through what we now know as the First Worlds War, either in the trenches or on the homefront, could ever conceive that there might be another one.
Vera Brittain was a young Englishwoman whose studies at Oxford were derailed by the war. She wrote of her wartime experiences in the memoir, Testament of Youth, published in 1933, when, incredibly, the international drumbeat had already begun for the march toward the Second World War.
Brittain's book is a very personal view of the effects of the war on an entire generation, particularly the women—mothers, fiancées, sisters, friends—left behind.
It was adapted as a TV miniseries back in the 1970s. And now comes a powerful new feature film, Testament Of Youth, directed by TV movie veteran James Kent.
Adapted by Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), the film is both searing and heartfelt. By maintaining Brittain's focus on the minutiae of women's daily lives, and the gradual, inevitable encroachment of the war that leaves no aspect of those lives unscathed, the film paints a very broad canvas in very delicate strokes of all that is lost in the brutality of war.
|Egerton, Vikander, Harrington, Morgan: no idea what lies ahead.|
The talk of the Brittain household is Edward's impending graduation from preparatory school and acceptance at Oxford. Vera also dreams of attending Oxford to study English literature, but their father (Dominic West) considers it a useless expense for a girl—he wants her to find a husband instead.
|Vikander as Vera: Oxford bound.|
Just when volatile Vera is denouncing marriage as a barrier to women's self-expression and freedom, another of Edward's school friends arrives, Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington). An amateur poet himself, smitten with prickly Vera, he makes all the wrong moves trying to befriend her—until he encourages her to write.
During the next year, they become pen pals and soulmates, exchanging poems and fueling each others' dreams.
The lush, pastoral nature of these early domestic scenes, and the languorous pace with which Kent and Towhidi set them up, show what is sacrificed to war, in terms of lifestyle, dreams, and, of course, promising young lives.
|Harrington and Vikander: collateral damage|
But by then, Edward, Roland, and Victor have already signed up to go "fight the Huns" in Europe—with no earthly idea of what awaits them there.
Vera soon disappoints her headmistress (Miranda Richardson) by quitting Oxford to volunteer as a nurse.
The hospital scenes can be harrowing, but no less so than Vera's attempts to reconnect with her psychologically damaged friends after they've been to the front, or the heartache of letting them go again.
|Vikander, Richardson: left behind.|
The eagerness of these young people to make a difference, to be a part of something larger than themselves, can't be faulted. But the more experienced she becomes (at a field hospital in France, she tends German as well as English soldiers), the more fervently Vera believes that war itself is the enemy, a lie to seduce young men into madness.
Vikander is luminous as Vera, with Egerton buoyant as brother Edward. Harrington (aka Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) makes a properly romantic Roland, but the real find is Colin Morgan, warm and dynamic as their friend, Victor.
And director Kent has a shrewd eye for telling details: an island of women waving goodbye as a troop train pulls out; a church pew full of mourning women in black on Armistice Day; innocuous objects the eye zeroes in on while a woman receives devastating news on the phone.
It's these personal details that make the film so hauntingly universal.
|The real-life Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson, ca 1915|