The World War I that has survived in our cultural memory is made up of lines of muddy trenches swallowing a generation of young men. And the voices that emerged from the war and helped cement that image—the tortured poetry of Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, the pacifist supplication of All Quiet on the Western Front, the bitter resignation of Robert Graves—are overwhelmingly male.
Unsurprisingly, the story is no different in Hollywood, where the plight of young men—and sometimes even their horses—have been dramatized in films like Gallipoli, Paths of Glory, Grand Illusion, and—yes—War Horse. All of this should make Testament of Youth, the cinematic adaptation of Vera Brittain’s 1933 memoir that opens in theaters this Friday, a deliciously refreshing opportunity to see a woman’s perspective on the Great War.
Brittain’s memoir, which stands alongside All Quiet as one of the great anti-war treatises, was an instant bestseller in 1933 and played a major role in solidifying the myth of the lost generation in a nation still grieving over the loss of nearly a million men. It’s an anguishing read, with Brittain often wallowing in her sorrow. “Never again, for me and for my generation, was there to be any festival the joy of which no cloud would darken and no remembrance invalidate,” she writes. But who can really blame her? The daughter of an upper-middle-class family, Brittain had studied English at Oxford for a year before volunteering as a nurse. Just 21 years old in 1914, over the next four years she lost her fiancé, her brother, and two close friends to the war.
But her book is much more than a casualty list, or a eulogy for her loved ones. Testament is fiery and intelligent, imbued with piercing observations about the war, British social class, and women’s role in early twentieth-century society. As a nurse in both London and at the front, she grappled with the ethics of caring for a ward of Germans, wondered if women could lead an unmarried, independent life, and thundered against a society that did not allow women to contribute equally.
It’s also Brittain’s coming-of-age story, going on to chronicle her post-war years as a journalist and vocal pacifist. During some of that time, she lived with another female writer; much has been written speculating over her sexuality. Brittain’s unapologetic candor, her questioning of gender relations, and her lifestyle have made her work a feminist classic. When Testament was first published, Virginia Woolf noted in her diaries that she stayed up all night to finish it.
And here is where the movie adaptation falls short. Alicia Vikander, this year’s breakout actress, tries her best to carry the weight of Brittain’s thoughts, staring woefully into the distance, setting her lips in determination, and shedding many tears. But the fact that many men died in the Great War and women mourned them isn’t new for movie audiences. What drives Testament is Brittain’s lively voice, a voice that is almost completely muted in the film. It’s only near the end, when Vera speaks out at a political rally, that we get to hear it briefly, and by then, it’s too little too late. Without any of the things that made her singular, the movie becomes a simple chronicle of grief, plodding through shots of Vikander’s tear-streaked face from one death to the next.
The movie tries to set itself up as a coming-of-age tale; we see Brittain’s attempts to attend Oxford, and her male friends supporting her studies. But the film concludes with the war, omitting the part of the story where Brittain actually comes of age. None of her unlikely post-war life appears in the film, which ends with Brittain swimming mournfully through a lake. The most interesting relationship in the memoir is Brittain’s relationship with herself, but in the film, her defining relationship is with her fiancé, played by a decidedly uninspiring Kit Harington (better known as Jon Snow in “Game of Thrones”). Vera Brittain was a much more remarkable person than this tame adaptation gives her credit for.
Like so many recent British period dramas, Testament adopts the “Downton Abbey” aesthetic, resplendent with opulent Edwardian costumes and idyllic seaside locales all shot in glossy pastels. It’s a beautiful look, but it has become standard in such productions these days. Just once, it would be refreshing to see Britain look like something other than a country-living catalogue.
Still, World War I has always offered itself up for sweeping images of scale, and director James Kent obliges here with two striking moments: the unending columns of names reported dead in the newspaper, and a bird’s eye view of a hospital in France, where thousands of men lay wounded and dying in the mud. These harrowing images capture the sheer devastation and waste of the war. Unfortunately, they’re nothing we haven’t seen on film before.