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Vera Brittain's elegant anti-war ode


Testament of Youth (M). Director: James Kent. Starring: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West. 130 minutes

Towards the end of Testament to Youth, the new, BBC-funded feature adaptation of Vera Brittain's seminal First World War memoir, we see Vera (Vikander), a young woman grown wise through her wartime experiences, confront a political gathering of hot-headed youths.

They are set on revenge, demanding that only the principle of an eye for an eye may apply to the sins committed against their countrymen by Germany during the war.

Vera, a latecomer to the gathering, interjects. She has worked as a nurse, has had her hands warmed by the blood of the maimed and the soon-to-be-dead of both sides of the conflict. She has lost loved ones, too — a brother, a friend, a fiancé — and the grief of their loss will be with her always.

But how can violent conflict ever be truly redeemed through the trauma of more violent conflict? The German soldiers who died in the war left behind loved ones, too.

It is, it must be said, an uncharacteristically didactic moment in a film that for the most part is elegant and thoughtful, if intermittently trite. But at least it gives due credit to Brittain, who may be remembered as one of the strongest Western voices for pacifism of the 20th Century.

Brittain would go on to pen a second memoir, The Testament of Experience, that further elucidated the ongoing harm caused to Britain and to humanity itself by the horrors of the Great War.

This particular cinematic telling of Testament of Youth is part war film and part coming-of-age drama that, thanks to some strong performances (notably from up-and-coming star Vikander) does justice to this pertinent period of Brittain's moral formation.

It transcends some of its notable shortcomings — its plodding pace, and the lacklustre romantic subplot between Vikander's Brittain and a seriously out-of-his-depth Harrington as her fiancé Roland Leighton. 

Vikander brings deep stores of strength and dignity to her portrayal of Brittain. The early portion of the film follows her efforts to gain entry to Oxford, against the wishes of her fond but old-fashioned father (West) and the expectations of her society regrading the role of women.

Later, she abandons her studies so that she can join the war effort as a nurse; a contentious and courageous act, given the social pressures she has resisted by commencing them in the first place. 

During the film's most poignant sequence, Brittain works at a field hospital in France. Motivated by patriotic fervour and by a desire to show moral support to her kin, she is alarmed to learn that she has been assigned to the section of the hospital that treats wounded German soldiers.

The scenes within are gruesome, but she works under an overseer who blithely abuses the 'stinking Nazis' in her care even as she treats them; this dark humour heightens the horror of the scene.

Here, Brittain has the epiphany that underpins her speech at the end of the film. One night she converses with a dying soldier; the exchange is in German and without subtitles, but it is not difficult to discern the meaning.

Brittain sees in the soldier not 'the enemy' but simply a young man, whose death will deny him a reunion with the woman he loves back home; just as her own loved ones' deaths kept them from returning to her. It is a powerful point, elegantly made.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Testament of Youth, Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Dominic West, First World War, Vera Brittan



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Existing comments

How can there be a reference to "stinking Nazis" if the film is set during the First World War?

ErikH | 23 April 2015  

I remember the BBC TV adaptation of 'Testament of Youth' with great affection - would be fascinated to see this second approach to the book.

David B | 23 April 2015  

"Stinking Nazis"? In World War I ? I think not.

Joanna M | 23 April 2015  

I suppose because my father fought in the trenches in WW 1, the BBC Serial and the Book had a very big affect on me. It brought home to me the futility and horror of War that nothing before or since has done. After the War my father returned to Australia with a profound respect for the Professionalism of the German soldier. Tim thanks for the Article I will look forward to seeing the Movie. Ron.

Name Ron Hill | 23 April 2015  

The Nazi reference was just a slip-of-the-keyboard by Tim in an otherwise accurate review. The word used in the field hospital scenes is "huns", a term used more in the First than the Second World War. I found it a very intense movie of loss, grief and waste in war. "Enjoyed" is not the right word but I'm glad I saw it and it made me want to read Vera Brittain's memoir.

Brett | 24 April 2015  

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