I keep saying it: Women have war stories too. War is not the exclusive province of men, whatever Hollywood would have us think. And Vera Brittain’s experiences during World War I make up one of the great women’s war stories: her 1933 book about her life and the war’s impact on her family and on British society was a bestseller, and its success gave her a public platform as a pacifist during WWII and into the Cold War.
This adaptation of her Testament of Youth, by British TV director James Kent and screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls), is a compassionate, distressing tale of a woman’s determination to find her own purpose and meaning in an era when that was not kindly looked up, and one in which women’s contributions beyond wife- and motherhood were going to become essential. Vera’s (Alicia Vikander: Ex Machina, Seventh Son) insistence on being allowed to attend Oxford to study is already a longstanding battle as the film opens, just before the outbreak of war with Germany in 1914; her loving but conservative parents (Dominic West [Pride, John Carter] and Emily Watson [The Book Thief, Belle]) worry an education will prevent her from finding a husband, which is of course the most important thing a woman must do with her life. But her beloved brother, Edward (Taron Egerton: Kingsman: The Secret Service), and his friends — including Roland (Kit Harington: Game of Thrones, Spooks: The Greater Good) — are more sympathetic; Roland even has a suffragette mother himself, and shares a passion with Vera for poetry and writing. (They end up falling in love. Smart is sexy and appealing in women, too!)
The conflict between generations and the profound impact the war has on Vera and her peers is built up over every small victory of Vera’s, and then how every victory comes with a great price: Vera makes the decision to leave Oxford (after fighting so hard to get in!) in order to work as a military nurse, for instance, because she is desperate to serve the war effort in one of the few ways allowed to her… and then becomes a close-up eyewitness to the human destruction ravaging the young men just like those she knows (and sometimes those she actually does know, too). This is a film full of tiny heartbreaking moments that pile up until they’re almost unbearable. The backdrop of one early scene has Vera on the streets of Oxford, amidst so many clever young women students buying newspapers for the war news as they hurry smartly and confidently to lectures. I thought: They look so happy and proud. They must have felt so modern. But of course the war was “modern,” too. Every step forward demands its tribute.