Review: Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain was an English writer who grew up in the shadow of World War I, challenging the sexism of the times to study at Oxford University, serve her country as a nurse, and publish this eponymous memoir in 1933. Sifting through her story, the biggest question is why hasn’t Testament been filmed before (besides a 1979 BBC adaptation)? It’s an all-too-rare view of war from a female perspective, with fabulous potential for its lead actor, in this case Alice Vikander (replacing Saoirse Ronan, who dropped out at the last minute). Then it becomes clear.

Although Vikander acquits herself well, there’s a forced, un-filmic passivity to Vera’s life that’s difficult to dramatise. “That’s war for you isn’t it?” tuts spiky lecturer Miranda Richardson. “Men go off to fight while we stay behind and knit!”

Vera resisted such strictures, but for all her achievements, most of the film finds her mooning over a procession of damp-eyed boys (fiancé Kit Harrington, brother Taron Egerton) as they write her endless letters from the front. It’s beautifully shot, and spiked with lovely subjective moments such as when she hallucinates a dying soldier whispering her name, or chandelier glass melting into tears at the sign of tragedy.

An accomplished TV director stepping up to features, James Kent handles Vera’s subjectivity very well, but the sweep of history around her sometimes feels contrived, even though it really happened. Tackling events of great consequence with sensitivity rather than surety, Testament Of Youth is thoughtful and moving, if a few degrees short of unmissable.

‘Testament of Youth’ Movie Times