Testament of Youth: The ‘Great War’ from a Woman’s Angle

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.

Taron Egerton as Edward Brittain- Alicia Vikander as Vera Brattain

Photo by Laurie Sparham – Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Alicia Vikander-Kit Harington-680

Photo by Laurie Sparham – Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024