In Testament of Youth, a fine act of remembrance for the dead of World War I, a face becomes a battlefield. The face – subtly, sometimes gravely beautiful – belongs to Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain, whose first-hand account of the Lost Generation would become as essential to our understanding of this conflict as Anne Frank’s diary would be to our understanding of life under the Nazis. The first time we see it, it is palely haunted, drained of all life, and decidedly out of place amid the Armistice Day revelries; a two-hour flashback reveals why this young woman was in no mood to party.
Those who’ve read Brittain’s memoir, or seen the much-admired TV adaptation of 1979, will already know the reasons, but this big-screen version, directed by James Kent from a script by Juliette Towhidi, makes a point of delaying the inevitable. In the spring 1914 scenes, unflustered kids frolic in the wide-open spaces of the early 20th century: here, at least, Vikander’s Vera glows, attracting male admirers as a flame does moths, before discarding them in pursuing her own path to Oxford. Yet dreaming spires provide only scant shelter from storm conditions, and what Vera sees, hears and experiences over the next four years comes to be written upon Vikander’s features: any greenery is soon torn up, the blossom and dew stripped away as it surely was on the fields on Ypres and Passchendaele. As beauty is despoiled, so too is innocence lost.
Towhidi knows how much of this story’s impact is tied up with Brittain’s prose, and how eloquently it issued the teenager’s standard cry of “it’s not fair” when faced with the expectations imposed upon her generation. (Men: do your bit, and hope not to catch a bullet. Women: marry young, and hope your swains will someday return.) Through voiceover and letters, she’s retained much of its internality, its sometimes clumsy and faltering yet always heartfelt poetry, without sacrificing any narrative momentum. For their part, Kent and cinematographer Rob Hardy have found atmospheric means of describing the slow march to war, and its destructive effect on the landscape. The emerald lawns of Brittain’s Buxton home and the Oxford quads, the comforting pastels of Vera’s knitwear, gradually disappear, replaced by the sombre browns of mud and blood, the black of bomb-blasted battlefields. The fresh air of those early interludes drains out; mustard gas prevails.
Hallmarks of the Well-Made British Period Piece remain, not least a BAFTA-sturdied supporting cast: Emily Watson and Dominic West give deft sketches of privilege as Ma and Pa Brittain, and broadly half the cast of the recent Mapp and Lucia drop by for afternoon tea. Yet this Testament attains its rare emotional focus by demonstrating the effects of war on its cast’s fresher faces: there’s an argument Kent even bests Gone with the Wind’s Atlanta sequence by cutting back into his own towering crane shot revealing the full extent of the carnage, to retrieve his heroine, shellshocked in the midst of it all.
As every foolish, youthful dream gets trampled into this mire, these faces will be angered, numbed and, in the worst cases, disfigured, and Kent holds to the idea there’s more power in framing these front and centre than there is from fussing unduly about the genre’s usual bows and ribbons. The result approaches both its material and its period with commendable delicacy and sensitivity: it’s some sign of Kent’s achievement that he can even quote Brief Encounter in one railway station leavetaking, and not seem like a haplessly reaching copyist. The sense of separation and loss this admirable film evokes really is that acute.
Testament of Youth screens on BBC2 tonight at 9pm.