Testament of Youth is based upon the memoir of the same name of an English women named Vera Brittain. She was born in 1893 in the North of England to a wealthy family. As a young woman she desired to receive an education and to become a writer, but of course even in the early 20th century this was considered improper for an upper-class woman. After much cajoling of her family, she was able to persuade her father to let her take the entrance exams at Somerville College, the women’s school at Oxford. She of course passes, and enrolls to study in English Literature while also beginning a budding romance with a man named Roland Leighton. But all this is happening just as the Great War is beginning, and Roland is sent off to fight, along with Vera’s brother Edward and her good friend Victor Richardson. Even Vera is soon caught up in the conflict, as the raging war soon comes to fundamentally transform British society. Vera Brittain is portrayed in this film adaptation by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, whom we saw earlier this year as the artificial intelligence Ava in Ex Machina. The male roles of Roland, Victor, and Edward are respectively played by Kit Harrington (Jon Snow in Game of Thrones), Colin Morgan (Merlin in the BBC’s Merlin), and Taron Egerton (‘Eggsy’ in Kingsman: The Secret Service).
Testament of Youth is actually a very interesting story because it deconstructs the idea of the idyllic English country life portrayed in many novels of roughly the same time period. It does this in two ways. The first way is by showing how this carefree and romantic society is actually extremely sexist; this society considers it offensive for a woman to do something as mundane as writing, let alone trying to get an education. And this is not in the time of Austen or the Brontës; this was in the 1910s. The second way it deconstructs this ideal society is by showing how it is absolutely destroyed by the Great War. Vera’s friend, brother, and lover all enlist in the military, believing they will quickly beat the Kaiser and be home in time for Christmas. Vera even helps to persuade her father to let her brother Edward join the army, in the belief that the war will be glorious and a way to test his manhood. Of course, the realities of one of the bloodiest wars in history soon shatter all these illusions, which Vera witnesses firsthand after she volunteers as a nurse close to the front lines.
All of that is really interesting, but the problem is that it takes far too long to get there. In order to deconstruct the seemingly-idyllic English country life it has to first portray that life, and this film portrays it exactly the same way as every single other film set in that same time period, making the first 40 minutes or so of the movie incredibly boring. I suppose its necessary set-up for the rest of the movie, but I wish they had done something even a little different with the clichéd tropes of the genre. The other problem is that I feel the movie did not go far enough in its deconstruction. Testament of Youth is considered one of the earlier feminist works, and Brittain became a vocal and well-known pacifist because of her experience during the war. But rather than examining her activism and looking at how she actually tried to change the society the film spent two hours criticizing, the film abruptly ends after she makes her first political speech. The story feels incomplete, because just as she transforms into the woman who she had been transitioning into since the start of the movie, it fades to black, and we are left with a book with the last few chapters torn out.
So, Testament of Youth is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s an interesting take on the end of an idyllic era of British society that was never actually as idyllic as many believe. The Great War is a much overlooked time in world history, and I am especially interested in movies which show history from a female perspective. But on the other hand, the film is incredibly slow to get going, and it ends just when it’s finally hitting its stride. It makes some good points, but it takes too long to make them, and it doesn’t go far enough with them. Hopefully one day we’ll see a version of Testament of Youth which truly does Vera Brittain the justice she deserves.