“The harder they push, the more grateful I am.” So says an inexperienced but resolute Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) as she struggles with the demands of her nursing superiors at the outbreak of World War One. Belittled by Niamh Cusack’s officious Sister Jones, the “ivory towers” of a privileged upbringing will crumble and fall as the horrors of experiencing the Great War irrevocably change the young woman, putting her on a path towards pacifism and, most notably, writing. A nostalgic but heartfelt period piece, this adaptation of Brittain’s wartime memoirs is the story of an indomitable spirit and proof of the old adage that what does not kill you will make you stronger.
In the early summer of 1914 Vera, her brother, Edward (Taron Egerton), doe-eyed suitor, Victor (Colin Morgan) and friend, Roland (Kit Harrington) enjoy the blissful innocence of holidays before returning to school; the calm before the storm that lay ahead where boys would become men all too quickly.
Pre-occupied with persuading her father (Dominic West) to allow her to go to Oxford, the stubbornly independent Vera’s head is in books and in the clouds. She petulantly refuses to accept her parents’ gift of an expensive piano and maintains a staunch disinterest in the shackles of marriage – much to the chagrin of her mother (Emily Watson) – until the equally poetic Roland catches her eye.
From this starting point, Vikander charts the transformation of a naive and spoilt girl to a principled, determined, yet prematurely world-weary young woman. The Swedish actress does so with a grace, fearlessness and beauty that constitutes one of the finest leading female performances in years.
The freewheeling vibrancy of this first act, and its blossoming romance, is reflected in a glowing colour palette: the Derbyshire countryside resplendent in heathers, violets and daffodils. Moving further into the film its tone will be dulled to the muted greens, browns and greys of uniform, mud and devastated battlefields – colour drained from both the landscape and faces as hope wanes. Director James Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy often rest on Vikander in close-up as so much of Testament is internalised and nowhere is this more striking than the film’s opening image. The eyes as a window to the soul is a terrible cliche but one that rings true here.
Quiet contemplation and reaction to events witnessed are as significant as what occurs. A stunning unedited tracking shot which follows Vera along muddy walkboards, over a hut, to a vast expanse of bodies lain on stretchers is as near as we come to ‘the front’. Kent’s marked focus is the emotional impact that injuries suffered by sons, brothers and husbands have on the bereaved who are left behind.
The subtle hint of a more-than-friendly relationship between Edward and colleague Geoffrey (Jonathan Bailey) as well as the tell-tale signs of shellshock displayed by Roland while home on leave allude to non-spoken hardships of the period which the English stiff-upper lip would not permit or simply did not strive to understand. Whilst the film may have the obligatory train platform goodbyes and telegram deliveries of bad news, these taboos and the surprising absence of battle scenes make Kent’s film more about the cerebral than the visceral. Credit must go to the director for making a relatively peaceful war film that is able to maintain such a raging undercurrent throughout. The same could be said for its leading lady.
Brittain’s creative spirit travels a similar arc to her own character – from bookish idealism to a lived realism and understanding. The romanticism of Byron, Shelley and Keats, and the lyrical poetry which form such a significant part of the young couple’s courtship is displaced by a hardened acceptance of the seismic shift in themselves and society. For many, prior innocence is replaced by a bitterness, resentment and desire for retaliation but despite the personal losses she suffered Brittain would go on to be a champion for peace and reconciliation. This film is a hopeful and fitting testament to her resilience.