A side from the actual international conflicts that never seem to stop swirling around us, many Americans can point to works of literature that they read during adolescence that profoundly affected their attitudes toward war. One of the things that helped turn many of us against the Vietnam War (and nukes in general) was the raw experience of reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima, then a staple of ninth-grade curriculum. For others, the trigger might’ve been The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, Johnny Got His Gun, From Here to Eternity, Catch-22, The Naked and the Dead, The Things They Carried.
But if you’d grown up in the UK, the book most likely to have shaped your views in an antiwar direction would have been Testament of Youth, the first volume of Vera Brittain’s memoirs, published in 1933. Brittain’s outspoken pacifism went out of fashion during the drumbeat for World War II; but the book was a huge initial success among the remnants of the generation who had survived World War I, and its popularity was revived in the 1970s when it was reprinted by the feminist publishing house Virago Press and made into a widely praised BBC miniseries. It seems, every English person knows that book well. Now it’s time for us Americans to discover it, however belatedly, through the magic of cinema.
Produced by David Heyman and directed by James Kent, with both Brittain’s daughter and her biographer as consultants, the new feature-length version of Testament of Youth packages its emotional punch in the decorous trappings of a Masterpiece Theatre-style production. There’s nothing flashy, trendy or cutting-edge here, but that in no way diminishes the film’s message. As the world notes the centennial of the war that was supposed to end all wars that killed more people in Europe than any catastrophe in history besides the Black Death, the movie’s release is a fitting reminder of the slippery slope of nationalistic posturing and its horrific potential consequences. It’s a message that, tragically, never loses its timeliness.
For a two-hour screen treatment, Juliette Towhidi’s adaptation leaves out Brittain’s childhood and cuts to the chase: a portrait of an extremely bright, feisty young middle-class Englishwoman who has to fight her family’s conservative views on women’s roles in order to attend Oxford University, then has her priorities radically reordered by the outbreak of war. Brittain’s account of her losses, one after another, of most of the young men closest to her could seem like melodrama were it not for the fact that her experiences were more typical than not for her generation.
Practically anything hopeful that anybody says in Testament of Youth the movie sounds at first like heavyhanded foreshadowing – until it sinks in that this is precisely the way it was in World War I: The carnage at the front was relentless. The long lists of casualties in tiny typeface in the weekly papers were real. Young Englishmen with no memory of war in their lifetimes eagerly signed up, imagining that it was going to be a bit of a lark, and most of them didn’t come home.
Part of this movie’s strength is its avoidance of battle scenes. The only heroics that we see are on the part of women like Brittain who volunteered to train as nurses and ended up working without sleep in the most appalling field conditions, short on medicines and supplies, desperately trying to patch together mangled men before they expired. The futility, ugliness and stupidity of war in general, and this war in particular, are unflinchingly depicted without showing more than a glimpse or two of actual combat.
The cast of mostly young actors is terrific, with Alicia Vikander delivering an extraordinarily nuanced and believable performance as Vera. She evolves from a grumpy youngster whose intellectual ambitions are being squelched to a blooming woman falling rapturously in love in spite of herself to a numbed victim of loss after loss to a passionately committed healer and eventual antiwar campaigner, without ever seeming too saintly (or letting slip her native Swedish accent). Her progress from hurt bafflement at the “you-don’t-know-if-you-haven’t-been-there” PTSD male bonding of the lads home on leave to utter impatience with her mother’s complaints about minor inconveniences like food rationing after Vera has seen the horrors of the war front firsthand is a wonder to behold.
Game of Thrones fans who have wondered whether Kit Harington can act in any other role (especially after Pompeii totally flopped) will be relieved to hear that his portrayal of Vera’s fiancé, war poet Roland Leighton, does not consist of more minor variations on what Internet memes have unsparingly mocked as “Jon Snow face.” This is the actor who played the original kid in War Horse on the London stage, after all – another World War I drama – and he’s actually quite good in Testament of Youth.
Also praiseworthy are the performances by Taron Egerton as Vera’s keen and callow younger brother Edward and Colin Morgan as their more reserved mutual best friend, Victor Richardson. The cast of grownup characters includes stalwart British thespians like the great Emily Watson as Vera’s disapproving mother; Joanna Scanlan, the TV comedienne who was so touching as Charles Dickens’ spurned wife in The Invisible Woman, as the aunt/chaperone who keeps interrupting her heart-to-heart talks with Roland; and Miranda Richardson as her brisk, acid-tongued mentor at Oxford.
Testament of Youth is a “serious movie” in the best historical, high-minded English sense, but though it’s sobering, piling tragedy upon tragedy, it’s not a downer. Rather, it will sharpen whatever commitment you may possess yourself to doing whatever one person may to ensure that wars don’t keep on happening forever.
Testament of Youth is showing at Upstate Films Woodstock from now until July 2 at 7:30 p.m., 132 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 876-4546, www.upstatefilms.org.
To read Frances Marion Platt’s previous movie reviews & other film-related pieces, visit our Almanac Weekly website at HudsonValleyAlmanacWeekly.com and click on the “film” tab.