by NEVIL GIBSON
The trenches and field hospitals of World War I have already occupied much TV and cinema
screen time this year.
TV has shown two similar series of young women who volunteered for medical service. One, The Crimson Field, focused on the British experience while the other, Anzac Girls, had more local relevance but was of much lesser quality.
On the big screen, Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner took a wider view of both sides in events after the Gallipoli campaign (reviewed January 25).
Testament of Youth (Transmission) is based on the memoirs of Vera Brittain, first published
in 1933 after she had achieved some success as a novelist.
She was among the first to reveal just what an appalling conflict it had been. The book rates with Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That as a tribute to a generation who were taken in the prime of their lives.
A TV series was first broadcast in 1979 and extended to five episodes.
The new feature adaptation gambles on casting a Swede, Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), as one of Britain’s best-known women. Backing her up is Dominic West (The Hours) as her father and Hayley Atwell, another TV stalwart, as a strong-willed matron dealing with idealistic recruits who had no idea of what they were getting into.
Typical of them was Brittain, who was born into a wealthy business-owning family and had high hopes for her chosen profession as a writer.
Brittain’s memoir is not just about women or the early days of feminism as these young nurses
were thrust into the horrors of the frontline.
Curtailing her own precocious academic ambitions, Brittain was among the early wave of women
who joined the war effort, only to realise high ideals were no match for the futility of mass
Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friends, who included her boyfriend Roland
Leighton (Kit Harrington), were also headed for university studies as war broke out.
All are eventually lost, including one she married after he is blinded. After it’s over, she
pledges to “immortalise” their experiences, and justifiably her memoir is among the classics of
When these young men’s letters were published in 1998, they gave more substance to the claim
that they were members of a “lost generation” that cost Britain many of its best and brightest.
The scenes of Brittain’s final reunion with Roland, who by then is a shell-shocked victim, show the emotional cost of keeping the horrors of trench warfare from their nearest and dearest.
Although unevenly acted and overly reverential in some of the narrative, the photography
stands out as sublime and having a subtlety that is more European than British.
It also compares well with two more recent and highly praised films set later in the century, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game.
After the war, Brittain went on to campaign for pacifism, even as the threat of another war loomed.
Rating: Not available; 129 minutes.