Women in film have been a large point of discussion this year, from the limited opportunities for female directors to actresses becoming more vocal about sexism in Hollywood. So it’s more than a little dismaying that there hasn’t been much buzz about Testament of Youth, an epic film about a woman’s experience of World War I, based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir and written for the screen by Juliette Towhidi. Indeed, if a friend hadn’t seen it on her flight back home from Taiwan and sung its praises, this outstanding picture might have passed me by as well.
Brittain (played by Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) lives with her parents in Buxton, a rural market town in England. Her upper-middle class surroundings offer her a certain set of opportunities, although her father (Dominic West, The Wire) proves obstinate in his refusal to let her apply to Oxford. Her mother (Emily Watson) complains about her “bluestocking” tendencies. Vera and her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton, Kingsman: The Secret Service) are close friends, and he utterly supports her educational aspirations.
After a quick flirtation, Vera strikes up a correspondence with Edward’s friend Roland (Kit Harington, Game of Thrones) and they soon become involved… or as involved as a couple can be under the eyes of parents and chaperones. Vera and Roland are eager to be at Oxford together, but then war strikes, throwing all their plans asunder.
The studio PR may be pushing Testament of Youth as a romance — and it is one! But this British film is most importantly a study of the impact of this war on the women who couldn’t fight it. As one of her professors (played by Miranda Richardson) tells Vera, “That’s war for you, isn’t it. Men go off to fight and we stay behind… and knit.”
Vera is a blissfully imperfect heroine that we follow from England to her service as a nurse in France (and then back again). She has an unwaveringly brusque manner. She is sometimes rude and, while dealing with unbearable loss, carries all her pain alone instead of speaking of it to others. Vikander’s eyes are emotive when her character has no words.
Director James Kent, in his first feature film, tells Brittain’s story using thoughtful scene juxtaposition and evocative imagery (a shot of dead soldiers at a French field hospital calls to mind a similar sequence in Gone With the Wind). Vera’s memories, thoughts and wishes are shown in quick edits. In one particularly painful instance, she notices a telegram delivery boy riding down the lane and pictures a soldier close to her heart arriving instead, even as she knows the boy is the bearer of terrible news.
Testament of Youth immerses the viewer in these four years of Vera’s life, as she grows from an outspoken teenager to an impassioned young woman. War begins and ends, numerous lives are lost, and Vera Brittain wonders about the meaning of it all.
Testament of Youth opens in Austin on 7/3 at the Regal Arbor at Great Hills.