The tragedy of World War One and how it robbed England of a generation of bright young men is recreated from a woman’s point of view in The Testament of Youth. Based on a best-selling memoir by Vera Brittain, published in 1933 and dramatized for British television in 1979, it’s fresh fodder for an American audience and presented in a manner that is forthright without ever lapsing into cliché. Some cynics may dismiss it as Masterpiece Theatre fodder, but Brittain’s story offers substance and surprise, as interpreted by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi and director James Kent. And if there is nothing particularly revolutionary in their approach, the story is solid and especially well cast. Girl-of-the-moment Alicia Vikander (currently onscreen in Ex Machina) is an earnest and credible heroine, and Kit Harington (from Game of Thrones) is equally effective as one of the male leads. With actors like Dominic West, Emily Watson, and Miranda Richardson filling out the supporting cast, it’s hard to go wrong.
Brittain is an independent-minded young woman who struggles to make a place for herself in a man’s world. She battles her father’s old-fashioned ideas and manages to be accepted to Oxford, where her professor (Richardson) cuts her no slack. Then war erupts. With the men nearest and dearest to her (including her brother) volunteering for what everyone agrees will be a quick assignment, she abandons her academic career to be of use behind the lines—even though there is no guarantee that she will be able to resume her academic career later on.
Vera Brittain is not a plaster saint: she’s a modern woman who wants to be of use and can’t justify burying herself in books when men are fighting and dying just across the Channel. This singular story makes The Testament of Youth immediate and relevant, even as it ticks the expected boxes under the category of “historical romance.”
I enjoyed watching this handsome production, which provides timely reminders of the extraordinary sacrifices men and women made during the “war to end all wars,” exactly one century ago.