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Film Review: Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain’s book, Testament of Youth, was first published in 1933 and includes her memoires of the First World War. She fought against many obstacles to win a place at Oxford and began her studies just a few weeks after the outbreak of war. Then, having watched her brother and her fiancée leave for the front, she gave up what she had achieved, putting her ambition to be a writer on hold in order to become a nurse to wounded soldiers.

This film version of the book is magnificent on a number of levels. The costumes and the evocation of the Edwardian period are excellent. Locations such as train stations and homes are beautifully observed and full of period details. Then the acting of the cast of young people, all relative unknowns, is excellent and they are well supported by an older generation of better know actors. Finally the storyline flows well and makes sense, so that the loss and anguish felt by Vera at the deaths of several characters is portrayed with a heart-wrenching emotion that rings true and envelopes the audience. The leading actress, Alicia Vikander, plays the part of Vera brilliantly, expressing her emotional journey with great skill. Who would guess that she is in fact Swedish?

There are some fascinating themes running through the film. It begins with women’s fight gain a university education, at a time when fathers thought their daughters’ only role in life was to make someone else a good wife. It was only in 1918 that women (over 30) got the vote in England, 25 years after they could vote in New Zealand. Vera, with her brother’s help, fought to persuade their father to allow her to try for a place at Oxford. Perversely, it was Vera who helped persuade her father to allow his son to join the army. All the sentiment and jingo is there – the war will be over in no time, people joining the army now might never get called up to fight. We also see the beginning of Vera’s support for pacifist causes to which she devoted much time after the war.

One of the most touching and poignant scenes of the film is the moment that Vera is recalled from the horrors of serving as a nurse just behind the front lines, to deal with a crisis at home. She obviously fears the worst about her mother, but when she reaches home it seems the cook has left, the cleaning hasn’t been touched and there is terrible trouble getting food in the shops. After all she has seen, Vera finds herself in the impossible role of housekeeper. It powerfully shows us how far some of the people back in England were from the war.

Go and see this great film, it is a sad and moving tale, exceptionally well made and beautifully acted. If you want more, read Testament of Youth, or Vera’s war diaries in a book called Chronicle of Youth, or better still read the letters between the circle of friends shown in the film, which is called Letters from a Lost Generation.

Marcus Hobson


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