The Great War. It will be over in no time, they said. If all the other boys are going to serve their country, how will you look if you remain behind? Well, chances are you have a better chance of keeping your life, but if you’re young and haven’t experienced war, it’s easy to think that the war won’t take very long.
Enter “Testament of Youth,” an adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir about the impact of World War I on the lives of women and Great Britain as a whole. With a cast led by Alicia Vikander’s performance as Vera Brittain, the film shows that, yes, war is hell.
The film begins on Armistice Day- November 1918. As British citizens fill the streets throughout and celebrate the end of the war, one woman in particular is too busy trying to make her way through the crowd. She reaches a chapel and finds herself drawn to a particular of people being washed into the sea.
We then flash back to four years earlier where we see the same woman swimming in a lake. This is Vera Brittain, played by Alicia Vikander. She’s still having some fun in the water while her brother, Edward, played by Taron Egerton, and friend Victor, played by Colin Morgan, get dressed. Edward teases Vera again about the possibility of her and Victor getting together, but Vera thinks nothing of that.
At home, Vera receives the surprise of her life when she sees a piano being delivered to her parents’ home. Her father, played by Dominic West, and mother, played by Emily Watson, would like Vera to play something for their guests, and she does…briefly. But she then stops and then storms off. Now why is there a bee in Vera’s bonnet? The money spent on this piano could have paid for a year of education at Oxford, which is what Vera wants. But not Mr. Brittain. He doesn’t want to waste, not spend, money on that.
Vera tosses all of her books out the window in protest. She has no plans of getting married- just pursuing her education to further herself. Just as Vera heads back downstairs, in enters another guest: Roland Leighton, played by Jon Snow himself, Kit Harington. Roland joins Vera in retrieving her books and is personally concerned about the literature. Vera thinks that Roland is already working on his anecdote to tell his friends at school…Vera, don’t be an asshole to someone you just met.
Anyway, Roland finds a note in one of Vera’s books. He doesn’t tell her about it, though.
That night, Roland stops by Vera’s room and finds her studying for the Oxford entrance exam, which he himself has already taken. It’s all about technique, he says. Roland offers to help, as he learned better on his own than from his teachers. He worked it all out on himself. Vera promises to do the same.
The next morning, Edward tries to persuade his father to let Vera enter Oxford. After all, it’s what Vera has her mind on. Edward even offers to pitch in and share his allowance with Vera. Dad points out that you still need tuition for the entrance exam, but Edward wouldn’t feel right going about this by himself if Vera didn’t have the chance. The two overhear a noise and it’s clear that Vera is with close by. Dad begrudgingly allows her to give the exam a shot.
Later, Vera and the boys relax outside and talk of suffrage, of which Roland is a supporter. As is his mother, who is a novelist that also writes for the paper. Roland takes out the poem he found, but Vera snatches it from him before he can read it.
Roland didn’t know that Vera kept it a secret. The only reason he held onto it was because it moved him. He found it quite beautiful, knowing that Vera is an impossible person to say that to. Vera says otherwise and asks Roland what he would think if she wanted to earn a living as a writer. Actually, Roland wants to as well, but he lives in his mother’s shadow. Roland tells Vera that she must write- something no one has ever told her before.
That evening, Roland slips a poem of his own under Vera’s door. She gives him her assessment the next day before he and the boys leave: it’s well-crafted, but a bit dry, as if he was holding back. She couldn’t find him in it, despite Roland’s word that it is his writing. Before Vera can apologize for her unintentional slight, Roland and the boys head off.
Vera writes to Edward by letter- remember those?- and asks for news of Roland, thinking that she offended him. Roland responds directly with his own poem.
Next thing we know, Vera is on a train to Hogwarts- I mean to take the entrance exam. She’s joined by her Aunt Belle, played by Joanna Scanlan. Aunt Belle, you see, has promised to keep a proper eye on Vera. She even made her an extra nightie. That’s pretty considerate of you, Aunt Belle.
Inside, Vera overhears a bit of conversation regarding an essay portion on the entrance exam- something she did not know about. Whoops. Exam time comes and Vera gives it her damndest. Afterward, she tells the instructor that she didn’t know an essay was required. After all, she did prepare for this on her own. The instructor notes that Vera was busily writing away, which is true, but Vera was writing in German, not Latin.
Side-note: while it would be easy to dismiss this as a simple mishap, the fact that Vera knows German does become a big plot point later on, so keep this little moment in mind.
But back to the film- Vera feels that the instructor has judged her already frivolous, but the instructor just thinks that Vera is keen to stand out.
Vera writes to Edward, thinking that her time so far has been a disaster. Even more than that, Roland has not written back to her yet.
Later, as Vera and Aunt Belle prepare for school speech day, Vera receives some mail, including a letter from Oxford. Just don’t tell Father.
During the address, Vera and the rest of the family watch as the headmaster wishes the men well as they head to university and prepare to serve the glory of the Empire.
When the speeches are all said and done, Vera catches up with Roland so he can read her Oxford results to her. After a long bit of waiting, Roland shares the news that Vera got in! Also, Vera, work on your Latin.
Following an awkward introduction to Roland’s parents, the two head off on their own to catch up, since Roland never wrote back. If it’s friendship that Roland wants, that’s fine with Vera, but she wants clarity. In Roland’s defense, it has been a very busy term. Exams and ending school can be quite time consuming. Roland also did hold onto Vera’s letters and only didn’t write back since he’s not so great with words.
One day, when they’re both at Oxford, they can see each other every day. Though Vera will be concentrating on her studies, Roland points out that she will need an escort.
And then Aunt Belle shows up and sees the two holding hands. She points out that this isn’t the way to go about it! And how! Roland asks Aunt Belle’s permission to see Vera again, and she grants it, but it will be fully supervised.
Indeed, Aunt Belle does chaperone the two and gives them little to no time alone. She even goes as far as sitting in between the two during a play. Now that is a cock block. They go to an art museum and just when it seems like they have a moment to themselves, Aunt Belle is watching from above.
In between this, the three learn from the papers and train passengers about the approaching war and Germany’s ultimatum. Some of the women figure that their boys will be the first to sign up, as there isn’t a lad in this country who doesn’t want to crush the Kaiser. The women decide that this war will be over in no time. Ha.
Edward wants Vera to talk to their father about Edward joining the war. He’s an officer cadet and this is what he’s been training for, but father said he’d rather put a gun to his own head than let his son join. All the other boys in town have joined and Edward wonders how it will look if he’s not among them. Well, for my money, I think Edward will have a greater chance of living a long life.
So Vera talks to father, telling that, according to the papers, this war should be short and fast. Again, the naïveté of these people. Hell, Edward may not even see any fighting. She argues that father should let Edward be a man, as Edward may not forgive him if he doesn’t allow him to sign up. Why do people always make these things personal?
Vera writes to Roland. Though the idea of war may be terrifying, she’s way too excited about her upcoming time at Oxford. When the two meet up when Vera arrives on the 2:20 train, she finds that Roland doesn’t have any luggage. He’s signed up for the war and will be joining a commission with the fourth Norfolks…starting tomorrow. Roland’s uncle, Theo, is a military man who managed to pull some strings.
And Roland wasn’t pushed into this- he asked for it. After all, how many generations get to serve in something like this? He can’t ask others to do his duty for him. He’ll be in Norwich- not even active service. It’ll just be months of training. At that point, the war could be over, so he and Edward could join Vera in the new year.
So it was, Vera begins her studies at Oxford. She writes to Roland to inform him that Victor was turned down because of poor eyesight, but Edward’s joining the Sherwood Foresters. At least Vera has the comforting knowledge that Roland is on English soil. In response, Roland writes to Vera to let her know that he’ll be leaving for France on Thursday.
One of the headmasters disapproves of Vera gallivanting off to see her male friend since the women have to work twice as hard and be twice as good. After all, what’s the point of fighting so hard to prove that they’re worthy of degrees? When Vera explains that she’s going to say goodbye to somebody going to the front, the headmaster understands, as her brother is also involved with the war.
When Roland and Vera meet, Vera learns that Roland asked for a transfer. He’s a bit under the weather. Hopefully not that Spanish flu that’s ripping through the troops.
It’s time for the train to depart. Roland and Vera say their goodbyes and the two promise to keep in touch. As the train pulls further and further away, Vera and the other women watch as the boys head off to war.
When Vera catches up with Victor, she tells him that she can’t stay there- she needs to do something. Victor casually suggests becoming a nurse. It makes sense, though, as there is a call for them. The headmaster isn’t pleased with Vera’s sudden decision. After all, not every person, let alone woman, gets the opportunity to embark on a promising career at Oxford. Even if Vera is giving up a golden opportunity, her mind is made up. She’s about to become a nurse for the war.
And that’s how Jon Snow and Vera Brittain went off to war.
While we’ve had war films that focus on the carnage and what goes through the mind of a soldier, I personally haven’t seen many that focus on those opposed to it. I’m sure there are films out there like it, so I can’t exactly call Testament of Youth original in that regard, but it’s interesting to see a different perspective on war taken…eventually, which is one of my minor issues with the film that I’ll get into later.
For now, though, the film does a good job at focusing on the naiveté of youth and people in general who feel that the war will be over in no time at all. Not everyone, though. At one point, Vera’s father tells her that he knows war and that it won’t just end before it begins. And I can’t get too up in arms about how uninformed most people are. They haven’t seen much, if any, war and are too focused on the obligation of serving your country.
At several points in the film, men talk about the potential ramifications of what could happen if they aren’t on the front line alongside their buds. It’s their duty and they can’t have others doing that for them. If they aren’t allowed to serve, they’ll never forgive the ones who kept them from realizing their potential. Vera even decides to give up her hard earned education just so she can be a nurse, even though she also has never seen combat.
To be frank, these people know nothing, and obviously I’m just saying this because Kit Harington is in this film, yes. Hell, even when watching this in the cinema, a man said next to me of Roland, “He knows nothing.” That’s cool.
Before war breaks out, we know it’s looming in the background just because of the film starting with Armistice Day. There had to be a lot of death and destruction leading up to this point, but Vera and her friends are in a false of security. They swim in a tranquil little lake and the boys look forward to doing their duties as men, never mind that there’s nothing saying that they’ll be safe from combat.
As the film slowly builds, we get snippets through the newspaper of the impending Great War. Headlines about the Archduke of Ferdinand being assassinated and Germany’s ultimatum to war show that the once quiet world our British citizens live in is about to be shattered by war.
Once war breaks out, though, we stick with Vera’s perspective. I know that this is her story and she can only speculate as to what’s happening on the battlefield, but this is one of my minor issues with how the war is presented onscreen. Here and then again, we get flashes of Roland and others in combat or stuck in trenches. Luckily, there’s no obligatory trigger for these brief scenes, but I would have liked more of them and that they be a tad longer.
Vera learns a lot about the war, but one or two extended scenes from the perspective of the men would have been nice to help add more weight to their conflict. Since Vera isn’t there, these scenes could be her speculating what she thinks is happening, and while it’s probably more valid that these flashes are what happened during the war, I just wanted to see these combat moments from the perspective of the soldiers.
In fact, we get a scene just like that when Roland and the boys briefly get some time away to spend with Vera and the family. After his brief time away, Roland is much colder and reserved to Vera compared to the cheerful man before he leaves. War isn’t easy to talk about and you don’t want to appear soft or too much of a pacifist.
But if you don’t have an emotional outlet, all those raw feelings get buried underneath. I personally see no issue with that, but for the purposes of this film, talking about the war allows the men to retain who they are instead of losing their minds and souls to combat. It also allows the women to grieve instead of continuing as if nothing bad will come of the war.
Though I’m talking a lot about the war portion of this film, there’s a lot of discussion of gender roles and assumed responsibilities that men and women fall into. Vera’s father doesn’t want to waste his money on her education, even if Vera has devoted so much time to her studies.
Once she gets to Oxford, one of the headmasters reminds Vera that the women have to work twice as hard and put in twice the effort just to prove to themselves and the world that they’re worthy of degrees. Vera wants to run off to war, which many women would see as an insult to the amount of females who would gladly attend Oxford if it meant receiving a quality education. While Vera never allows herself to be restrained by her gender, she decides that she’s destined for more than an education.
One of the most telling scenes detailing the divide between the genders is when Vera wishes Roland farewell as his train heads off. While all the men ride off to war, the train platform is flooded with nothing but women wishing their sons, husbands, friends and so on farewell. Unlike World War II, there’s none of that desire for women to take up a large effort in the war- they just go back to their designated matriarchal roles and await the men to return, unaware that many of them will not.
Two scenes highlight this: there’s a moment where Vera looks through the newspaper and sees the many full page spreads naming the number of dead soldiers. Coupled with this is a sweeping scene later on in the film where Vera and other nurses help injured soldiers and the camera pans further and further back, as if the number of injured soldiers was endless.
The character herself is a rebel from the start, a character trait I appreciate. Alicia Vikander is great at embodying this woman who constantly challenges authority figures around her because she knows that she’s destined for greatness and her performance is the best part of the film, in my opinion. She’s a bit of a prat at the start, as Roland points out that she’s difficult to please, but she does soften to others who are trying to be genuinely nice to her.
Once she has her mind set on something, she commits to it. Well, sort of, since she skimps out on Oxford after fighting for it, but she does still commit to volunteering her time as a nurse and seeing some of the bloodiest parts that the war leaves. She’s horrified by the carnage she witnesses when tending to the wounded and unprepared at first on how to handle this. This isn’t the simple war that would be over in no time. This is real hell and she’s responsible for stitching up the men that barely managed to return. Even though she’s doing beyond what’s expected of her, it’s a decision she’s willing to stick by, no matter what and who she loses.
Everyone else is fine in their roles, but it’s disappointing that you have actors like Kit Harington, Miranda Richardson, and Emily Watson, just to name a few, that aren’t fully utilized that much, though Harington does appear a bit more and I do like his chemistry with Vikander. In addition, Hayley Atwell, one of my current favorite actresses, appears briefly, but I wish she’d been here for longer, if only because I enjoy seeing her on screen.
My issue with the film is that Vera’s pacifism comes too late into the film. At the same time, she has to experience the pain of loss in order for her opinion to change. Plus, because she’s been pushing so hard for her brother to join the war, when she loses people close to her, she learns that she’s partially responsible for pushing others to go to war.
Before, many figured that the Great War would take no time at all. As time progressed, opinions began to change. This was no longer just about sending off boys to fight- it was about realizing that many of them were being sent to their deaths. Testament of Youth, though it doesn’t go as far with its pacifism as it wants to towards the end, is still a very good movie that shows how quickly the naiveté of war can vanish once the horror hits you back home. There’s a massive difference between the idealism and patriotism of war versus the reality of death.