Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth has resonated as an exemplary example of a wartime memoir since its publication in 1933. By focusing on the book’s potent World War I period, this film adaptation takes a look at the blows dealt to Brittain by the war that shaped her as both a person and a writer in a well-made manner.
As played by Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Brittain is initially shown as a young woman whose only desire is to attend Oxford’s Somerville College. She even studies for the rigidly difficult entrance exam on her own, in spite of her father’s complaints about the expense and worthlessness of attending a school where she can’t earn a degree. But Brittain is stubborn to a fault, and refuses to meet her family’s expectations of her – including the expectation that Brittain should focus on landing a husband.
Of course, she’s in the middle of arguing that she doesn’t want a husband when the handsome Roland Leighton (Kit Harington), a friend of her brother’s from school, enters her family’s house. Because of the way these stories go, he’s obviously destined to be the object of her affection. The love story between the two is meant to serve as the heart of the story, but while Vikander and Harington are pleasant enough to watch, there’s little heat between the two. Thankfully, even though the romance is a significant drive for Brittain in the film, the film keeps most of its focus squarely on Brittain when she’s separated from Leighton. Here, she gets to more forcefully express her desire to be herself and to find a way to be important during a time where her country needs it.
A pair of other relationships manage to help make more of Brittain than her relationship with Leighton anyway. There’s her relationship with her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), which fits squarely into the sibling relationship built on love and trust, and a more fraught relationship with Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson), her eventual advisor at Oxford who pushes Brittain at every opportunity. Of course, Brittain makes it into Oxford, but it’s on the heels of the arrival of World War I, which both Leighton and Edward insist on joining.
What makes Testament of Youth interesting is how Brittain’s youth, and the fiery immaturity associated with that stage of life, are tempered by the knowledge of what inevitably comes in wartime. The film isn’t a romantic biopic. It’s an unsentimental view of the damage inflicted by war. Brittain’s own priorities change, with her desire to attend Oxford put off so that she can serve as a nurse to soldiers in situations she imagines might be similar to what Leighton, Edward, and other friends may be enduring elsewhere. The change in character is handled beautifully by Vikander, who manages to make the changes subtle but definite.