It is interesting that the story that was the original and came to be the epitome of all others now seems like a story we have seen many times before; coming as it is, in the wake of so many other first world war period dramas. Not to mention the likes of Downton Abbey on the small screen. Yet Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, first published in 1933 was at that time the first of its kind and as indeed the film tells us, Brittain herself became hailed as the voice of a generation. It tells the story of Vera, an unconventional woman who shuns the idea of marriage and instead wants to study at Oxford and become a writer. After a long fight with her father she is allowed to sit the entrance exams where, despite a lack of tutition her oringinality stands out and she is offered a place. Just before she begins her studies however, the first world war breaks out and instead of joining Vera at Oxford, the man she loves joins up, shortly followed by her brother. Feeling a need to do something instead of burying herself in books Vera leaves her studies to become a nurse, volunteering first in Britain and then on the front line itself. The film focusses on Vera’s experiences during the war as well as her reactions to the horrors she witnesses and the losses she suffers.
Depsite the feeling that we have seen aspects of this story before, the film nevertheless seems to be saying something new, or at least seems to be telling the story in a way which makes it seem worth telling. The view of the nurse on the frontline highlights the destructive force of the bloodshed and at one point the film uses a panning shot, not unlike the end of O What A Lovely War to impress upon the viewer the extreme numbers of men injured and killed.
Alicia Vikander who plays the main role of Brittain carries the film very well. Always a captivating screen presence, she beautifully captures this charismatic, strong willed woman, so much so that you forgive the occasional accent slip.
It may seem like the same wartime drama we have seen countless times but there does seem to be something beautifully rendered about A Testament of Youth. Perhaps it is because of the strength of its source material but there is a poignancy in its delivery and a deep attachment to its characters which makes it more than worth another visit to 1914 and the horrors of those four years.