The English feminist Vera Brittain was only 24 at the end of World War I, but had already lived enough life to fill a memoir, ‘Testament of Youth’ (although it took her close to 17 years to write). The book has now been adapted into a beautifully acted but disappointingly stiff period drama. It will help to make a star of Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, stunning as Vera, who can’t or won’t be one of those good girls who like sewing and making jam. Her performance has the Carey Mulligan intelligence factor – even if her accent wobbles from time to time – and she lets Vera be funny, blunt, difficult, annoying even.
We meet her as a rebellious teenager, tutoring herself to pass the Oxford entrance exam against the wishes of her disapproving parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson). When she passes, life feels like it has finally started. There’s even a romance with her brother’s dreamy poet friend Roland, played by Kit Harrington (Jon Snow from ‘Game of Thrones’ proving there’s more to him than scowls and growls). Then, cruelly, war breaks out. Vera’s brother, Roland and another close friend enlist. Vera leaves Oxford, trains as a nurse and volunteers to treat soldiers on the frontline in France. Devastatingly she loses all three men dear to her. The death and devastation plays out in Vikander’s faraway, empty eyes. There’s a stunning scene, as she hears of yet another casualty: inside, she’s howling with rage, but she continues to walk down the corridor in the hospital where she’s working with just a hint of a tipsy wobble. A shame then, that this sense of loss is missing from the rest of the film, which politely pushes away the horror.