When war erupts in 1914 a young, vigorous and forward-thinking woman (Alicia Vikander) surrenders her ambitions to support the victims, even as her own life is ripped apart.
War is coming. You can feel the impending heartache even as this story opens with youthful frolics in the river. The story is that of famed pacifist Vera Brittain, whose Testament Of Youth is one of the few published First World War memoirs from a woman’s hand — a narrative that has encouraged successive generations to keep striving for their dreams even as they slip from view.
This adaptation is the feature debut from documentary-maker James Kent who introduces Vera (Vikander), and the young men in her life, during an Edwardian summer under sun-bright skies.Vera fights for her place at Oxford; she wins. She meets the dashing Roland (Harington), they swap poetry and she fights for their love; she wins. Everything seems spiffing. Except, of course, it’s not. There is war in Europe and the menfolk enlist. Everybody loses.
We know what will happen.The surprise lies not in their fate but in Vera’s tenacious response. She surrenders a hard-fought university place and her dreams of a writer’s life to nurse victims of battle, first at home and then at the front, English or German, she has compassion for all. Vera is an absorbing character and Vikander’s is a compelling portrayal.Vikander came to attention in both A Royal Affair and as Kitty in Anna Karenina. Here she doesn’t so much catch the eye as dazzle it, exuding like Vera an emotional intelligence that far outstrips her years. She is at her brightest when the story gets darker while Kent directs with stylish restraint, both sober-eyed without stinting on the emotion.
Some moments from Vera’s life are familiar. Lovers at the railway station, the outsider among the Dreaming Spires, an amusing chaperone, a war to end before Christmas, the corrupted wedding day, a bad news phone-call — these vignettes populate dozens of dramas and can nudge even the oldest and most honest tales into the realm of melodrama. Kent’s film, which at times must skirt the boundary, never crosses the line.
There are familiar moments in Vera Brittains stirring story, though the Kent's craft and Vikanders exquisite talent will ensure that the authors memories live in the minds of a fresh generation...