Once upon a time, in a kingdom where citizens once called themselves united, people declared they would never again engage in the senselessness of a world war. They created something called a "peace pledge union," renouncing war as a crime against all humanity and declaring one of their vicars would be a young Oxford student by the name of Vera Brittain, who would inspire a nation through a stirring World War I memoir, Testament of Youth.
That was long ago. Human nature took hold and continued to pull the United Kingdom and its allies into revenge-driven conflicts. Therein lies the story of Vera Brittain, a 20th century author, feminist and anti-war icon. More than eight decades since her memoir was published, a mini-epic screen adaptation has come to American cinemas this summer—opening in Boise on Friday, July 24. The film is as sad as it is magnificent.
Brittain once described herself as a "minor prophetess of peace," but she inspired numerous female writers like Margaret Mitchell, Virginia Woolf and Lillian Hellman, who penned both fiction and nonfiction narratives about the true spoils of war.
In Testament of Youth, Brittain is portrayed with supreme ferocity by this season's hottest young actress in film, Alicia Vikander, who is also creating a stir for her role in Ex Machina. She's a stunning Swedish actress/dancer who first came to our attention in 2012's Anna Karenina and A Royal Affair; and she has just landed the female lead opposite Matt Damon in the next Bourne Identity reboot.
Vikander is surrounded by a superb supporting cast in Testament of Youth, including Dominic West, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson and Kit Harington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones) as Brittain's fiance, Roland Leighton. It was Leighton who authored the famous love letter/poem "Violets from Plug Street Wood" to Brittain, who discovered it after his passing. To this day, mourners still leave violets at Leighton's gravesite in Louvencourt, France.
When he was 20, Leighton was gunned down by a German sniper while fighting for England in World War I. It was his grisly death that first shocked the upper-class Brittain into how war was her (and our) time's most ruthless robber-baron. Brittain' brother and two other young Oxford school chums were killed in WWI, just weeks after they had cheerfully and naively marched away from their studies and off to war. It was those boys' lost innocence that inspired Brittain to fill her memoir—which became a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic during and briefly after the war—with melancholy and a resolve to stop war.
Today, Testament of Youth is not as widely read in United States schools as it once was in the mid-20th century, though it is still on required reading lists in the UK So, it's a good bet that many U.S. audiences will be first introduced to Brittain's story through this fine film.
A word of caution: There are some sluggish early moments early in Testament of Youth—the book is a bit of a slog itself at more than 600 pages. When the realities of WWI take over Brittain's narrative, however, the film's impact is visceral.
It was rare for Oxford to allow female students to leave their studies to assist the sick and dying, but Brittain served as a volunteer nurse during the war. It was in those hospitals, primarily tending to severely wounded German prisoners, that we see Brittain witness first-hand the particular cruelty of trench warfare. Ultimately, her accounts of those events differed significantly from many other primarily male wartime authors (Ernest Hemingway with A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque with All Quiet on the Western Front), who often romanticized the soldier's perspective.
"I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy war and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the war lasts and what it may mean, could see a case—to say nothing of ten cases—of mustard gas in its early stages—could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-colored suppurating blisters, with blind eyes ... all sticky and stuck together, always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper," Brittain wrote in her memoir.
Deep into Testament of Youth, we see Brittain accidentally wander into a pro-war rally In London, listening to family members who have lost husbands, sons and brothers in WWI, as they shout through their pain and anger about how "the Germans must pay." Only then is Brittain inspired to take the stage and appeal to their better selves.
"We send our men to war because we think it's the right thing," she says to the crowd. "I ask you to find the courage that there might be another way. Perhaps their deaths have meaning, but only if we stand here and say no; no to killing, no to war, no to the endless cycle of revenge. I say no more of it."