Testament of Youth

This remarkably affecting film is a dramatization of Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I.  The story begins in the spring of 1914, when Vera’s biggest worry is whether she will be able to join her brother and his friends at Oxford in the fall. (She is smart enough to get in, but her father worries that too much education will make her unmarriageable.)  A few months later, WWI begins, and everyone’s life dramatically changes.  The young men go off to war. Vera volunteers as an army nurse, and the young woman who wasn’t permitted to see a young man without a chaperone is suddenly washing the horribly wounded bodies of other young men.  Vera eventually volunteers to work in France, near the front line. After the war, she (and everyone else) need to learn to live with their ghosts — the flower of a generation gone.  That’s the origin of the book.

The film does an excellent job of conveying the horror that the war quickly became with admirable restraint.  Instead of showing us stacks of bodies, the astonishing casualty rate is demonstrated by lists of names in the newspaper, which go on and on.  The English countryside and Oxford’s dreaming spires seem like a fantasyland compared to the moonscape the Western Front soon became.  There are some intense scenes (this is WWI, after all), but their impact is all the stronger because there are so few of them.

With Alicia Vikander (the scheming AI in Ex Machina) as Vera, and Kit Harrington (Jon Snow) as the young man she falls in love with.

Highly recommended.  The book, written in 1933 and still in print, is also worth your time.

Fun fact:  Brittain’s daughter, Shirley Williams, served in the British Cabinet in the 1970s, and was one of the founders of the Liberal Democratic party.

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