Testament of Youth

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Testament of Youth

The big problem with writing stories about World War One is that there’s really only one story you can tell about World War One, and that’s that War is pointless. World War Two is the one with all the exciting, heroic stuff, Vietnam is the crazy war, everything more recent has to be treated very carefully to show respect to those who fought and everything more ancient is so far in the past you can do whatever you like. But World War One stories always end the same way: it was a senseless waste of life and we should all do our best to make sure it never happens again… even though it clearly has happened a number of times again already.
The thing that excuses Testament of Youth from just being more of the same is that Vera Brittain’s autobiography was written not long after the war, before all the clichés became clichés. So while for anyone even remotely familiar with the way these stories work, there’s nothing here that will come as even the smallest of surprises. This is a story that helped form those clichés, which gives it a power (and in some ways a shamelessness about doing what seems to us today to be the obvious thing) that gives the story a strength that a modern day attempt to cover the same ground would lack.
Before the war, Vera (Alicia Vikander) has two big worries: would her father (Dominic West) allow her to try out for Oxford and which one of her brother’s friends should she go out with, with sensitive poet Roland (Kit Harrington) the clear front-runner. Then war is declared, everyone is frightfully eager to enlist, and being World War One things end up badly for pretty much everyone. As Vera’s story, this focuses more than usual on the grief and horror those left behind had to deal with, and the film itself focuses on the concrete details of how such things are felt – the dread of the arrival of the telegram boy, sinking to your knees in the mud in despair. It may be the same old story, but a century on it still has the power to hurt.