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By Sarah Ward
April 27, 2015
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Testament of Youth

A handsome and heartfelt war story — from the women's perspective.
By Sarah Ward
April 27, 2015
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When it comes to getting to the heart of what life is like during wartime, Vera Brittain literally wrote the book. You may not have heard of the English writer, though you really should've. A century ago, she was crusading for her right to make her own decisions and rallying against the future that was supposed to await all women. Getting married and playing house was the done thing, but it was far from her dream. Instead, she wanted to study at Oxford and pursue a career — until the First World War broke out, changing everything.

Brittain's first memoir, Testament of Youth, offers a record of the devastation that followed, including loss and destruction anyone who has ever read or seen anything about war will instantly recognise. Her recollections are more than just accounts of the horrors she witnessed while volunteering as a nurse in London, Malta and France, however; they're a portrait of a generation forever shaken by the experience, as told from the female perspective.

Think about the wealth of movies you've seen about men marching off to battle, then think about how many truly depict what such times were like for women. That's just one of the reasons that Brittain's story — and the film that brings it to the screen — demands attention. She might not have been on the front lines, but she was fighting for a cause in any way she could. After striving to further her education, she willingly chose to put her life on hold, head to the conflict and do her part to support those in the thick of combat.

Rising star Alicia Vikander plays Brittain as a determined figure in a dark era, yet never a merely dutiful one, which is an important distinction. It is certainly disappointing that the film pays so much attention to the influence of the men in Brittain's life — her initially disapproving father (Dominic West), her charming brother (Taron Egerton) and the poet she falls in love with (Kit Harington, because every film these days seems to have to cast someone from Game of Thrones) — but Vikander's convincing and complex portrayal ensures she's always the real star of the show.

Thanks to director James Kent, the movie is also as handsome as it is heartfelt, his fondness for period details apparent. Audiences have seen warm-toned, softly lit scenes like his before, and romanticised and restrained war films, too, but when they're this intricate and earthy, it is hard to get tired of watching them. Indeed, that sentiment also fits Testament of Youth as a whole. So much looks and feels familiar in the way Brittain's real-life plight has been adapted for the screen, and even if the movie doesn't do its inspiration justice, there's always something — a refreshing point of view, a stellar performance, an elegant image — that keeps sparking interest in this wartime chronicle.

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