Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain's war memoir makes for an intense cinematic experience

When Vera Brittain published Testament of Youth in 1933, she offered up an anthem for a shattered generation surrendered to the blasted heaths and sodden trenches of the First World War.

Brittain’s memoirs of her experiences before, during and after that pointless exercise represented an intimate portrait of wartime Britain, the theme of forfeited innocence clearly never far from the surface.

In the latest cinematic adaptation of that seminal work, director James Kent succeeds in conveying a slow burning but sumptuous film, intense and inherently, unavoidably heartbreaking.

Anchored by a wonderfully layered performance by Alicia Vikander – drawing on the wells of emotional maturity that have defined her performances from Anna Karenina to A Royal Affair – Kent’s epic story of love and loss feels truly significant in its elegant conception.

Opening on Armistice Day 1918, a clearly grief stricken Vera (Vikander) flashes back to the halcyon summer of 1914 in which she and her gentle brother, Edward (Kingsman: The Secret Service star Taron Egerton), entertained his school friends, Victor (Colin Morgan), and Kit Harrington’s soulful Roland.

The spiky, bookish Vera immediately falls for the latter, drawn in by his poetry and respect for her own dreams of a writing career, of an Oxford education.

Given the prevailing era, the shadow of conflict rests in the background, its encroachment unnoticed at first in Vera’s verdant home patch of Buxton, Derbyshire, an achingly exquisite, occasionally desolate setting which Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy capture with a loving embrace.

Not-so-distant horrors soon crowd in, however, and the Brittain homestead appears less relevant, polluted even, its gentility upended by cruel realities. This is not a tale solely of warfare; Kent focuses instead on the corrosive effect such bloodshed has on the ties that bind humankind together.

Vera is not the sole victim here, yet a time of great change – be it social, global or sexual – unfolds through her mournful eyes. It takes shape with her entry into the austere all-female environs of Somerville College, Oxford. It also forms around the dismantlement of class boundaries in the hell of shell-torn France, calcifying as newspapers publish nothing but lists of lost boys, rich and poor. Nothing will ever be the same again.

Tellingly, the director opts to keep the mounting tragedies largely invisible, for it is the survivors who must pick up the pieces of destruction wrought by unseen and foreign violence, not the dead.

Vera volunteers for nursing duty, treating the wounded – both British compatriots and German prisoners – in the Western Front’s groaning charnel houses, and these experiences seem to awaken the spirit of pacifism that would define her later existence. How could they not?

Kent sinks his once handsome film into the mud of rain-washed barracks, the incessant creeping grime infesting each foul hut to carry away the broken souls within. Unsurprisingly, Vera, driven to seek solace away from the heartbreak of losing those most close to her, sees the creative spirit she shared with Roland condemned to a life before the sky darkened. Even their time together on home leave feels less hopeful, a stay of the inevitable.

Soaking in this turmoil is Vikander, a strikingly accomplished young performer around whom the events roil and burst. Undeniably beautiful in a real-world sort of way, her mature, suppressed, unreadable features come to fill the screen, Kent’s camera lingering with a lazy handheld focus fuelled by intrigue more than anything else. With happiness stolen before it may be fully realised, hers is a presence to remind us that profound human suffering extends far beyond the field of battle.

The trio of male leads make the most of the space afforded them: Egerton is every inch the sensitive loyal sibling, and Harrington carries off his anti-Jon Snow with a subtlety not always demanded by Game of Thrones.

Armagh actor Morgan, meanwhile, delicately portrays a noble and good soul who would rather create a fictitious fiancée than pursue Vera, the shimmering object of his hesitant affections. Dominic West, too, excels, with limited opportunities, as the stoic patriarch who adores his children.

Ultimately, of course, this is Vikander’s show. Save for the irritating anti-war grandstanding in a somewhat exhausting finale, the Swedish actress, hiding any trace of her Nordic inflection, exhibits the kind of sober English tenacity that would steel many a weaker soul.

Testament of Youth runs at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast from January 16 – 29.