The opening act of James Kent's Testament of Youth plays out like an advert for Visit Yorkshire: a young woman frolics in a cool, clear lake and, laughing, wanders o'er hill and dale with her beloved brother and his two friends. The toughest challenge in Vera (Alicia Vikander)'s life is persuading her father (Dominic West) to let her sit the Oxford entrance exam so that she can join her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and sweetheart Roland (Kit Harington) and eventually become a writer.
She wins a place at Somerville College, but before we can go full Brideshead, the Great War has erupted and Edward, Roland and several other friends have enlisted. Vera begs Roland not to go but he insists. "How many generations get a chance to be involved in something like this?" he asks, and soon he has gone to fight. Even the honeyed stone walls of Oxford offer little solace to Vera and she leaves behind her Ivory Tower to become a nurse — first on home turf and then in France where she can be closer to the action.
Kent's anthem for doomed youth is based on Vera Brittain's memoir of the same name and it paints a bleak, uncompromising portrait of war and waste, love and loss. There is mud and blood, with little room for romance or romanticisation. The film has a lot in common with Poliakoff's Glorious 39, but the similarities with Joe Wright's Atonement are more immediate (it almost feels like a prequel), from the long sweeping shots of battlefields to Max Richter's haunting score. Atonement is a cleverer, more complex film but Testament of Youth has at its core a strong and moving central performance from Vikander and a powerful story.
Jon Snow (AKA Harington) has had a bit of a haircut and scrubbed up rather nicely, but he is soon dispatched to the wall (well, the front line) and his main role is to look dolefully at Vera with those puppy-dog eyes. It seemed to me that there was more of a connection and stronger chemistry between Vera and Edward than Vera and Roland. West, meanwhile, is also wasted in his role as the sad, powerless patriarch but he makes the best of the material is given. Emily Watson, as Vera and Edward's mother, doesn't have a lot to do either, although there is a nice, if brief, turn from the ever sparky Hayley Atwell, as a take-charge, stiff-upper-lip nurse Vera meets in France.
Testament of Youth is a bleak film to start off a new year, especially with the World War I centenary and the dramatic display of poppies at the Tower of the London barely having concluded. It is, however, a well-made film that tells an important story about a unique and fascinating historical character — a story that will stick in my mind for some time, as well as prompting me to re-watch the excellent Atonement.