Determined, ambitious and highly intelligent, Vera Brittain was a disappointment to her parents. Alarmed by her bookishness and desire to study at Oxford, their tactic was to buy her a grand piano in the hope that this would persuade her to behave like a proper young lady and become, eventually, somebody’s wife.
The arrival of the piano is a memorable early scene in the 2015 film adaptation of Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth. ‘It could have paid for a whole term at Oxford,’ hisses Vera. Later, she is persuaded to play to her family and guests, but after a few reluctant bars she slams down the piano lid and stomps upstairs. Roland and Victor – friends of Vera’s 18-year-old brother Edward – are impressed.
It is the spring of 1913, and there is a palpable sense of possibility for Vera, Edward, Roland and Victor. They roam the Derbyshire countryside around the Brittains’ home, their heads filled with poetry and painting. Yet a sense of foreboding seeps through the beauty and hopefulness: a mist descends on the moor, and there is talk of rats in the lake.
Vera (played brilliantly by the Swedish actor Alicia Vikander) and Roland (an impressive Kit Harington) begin a tentative courtship, and he encourages her ambition to become a writer. Vera’s father reluctantly gives permission for his daughter to sit an entrance exam to Somerville College. She wins a place and plans to join Edward, Victor and Roland at Oxford in the autumn of 1914.
War intervenes. In a horrible irony, Vera arrives at university just as her brother and his friends abandon their studies to enlist as officers in the British Army.
The film captures well the sense of patriotic fervour at the outbreak of war. Vera even argues with her father when he tries to prevent Edward from joining up. And with the ‘Three Musketeers’ gone, she finds she cannot justify her own sheltered existence at Somerville. By the end of her first year, she has left Oxford to train as a VAD nurse. If the men she loves are suffering, Vera wants to suffer too.
In Brittain’s memoir, there is a sense of one-upmanship in Vera and Roland’s wartime correspondence, a veiled competition over who is having the worst time. She is not afraid to complain: ‘Women get all the dreariness of war and none of its exhilaration…’ and she refuses to sugar-coat her experiences. It’s this biting honesty which makes the memoir such a compelling read. Yet Vera’s spikiness is played down in the film, and she becomes a more romantic character, nurturing Roland when he returns on leave, traumatised by his experiences at the front.
The couple become engaged but in December 1915, just as Roland is due home on the eve of the wedding, he dies of wounds suffered in a sniper attack. Vera’s grief – and the grief of Roland’s family – is depicted with heartbreaking understatement.
After Roland’s death, Vera immerses herself in her role as a VAD nurse. It’s a pity that the film does not feature her fraught journey to Malta aboard a hospital ship, or her time nursing on the island which is described so memorably in the book. The action moves instead to Etaples in France, and while this is well portrayed – particularly the haunting aerial shot of injured soldiers laid out on stretchers – it feels as if we are on familiar territory.
Overall, though, this is a faithful adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir and the tragic fate of her beloved ‘Three Musketeers.’ The cinematography is outstanding and the performances are excellent, with a supporting cast including Anna Chancellor, Miranda Richardson, Joanna Scanlan and Dominic West. The film is a poignant tribute to Vera Brittain and will surely encourage a new audience to read this remarkable, relevant, memoir written – in Brittain’s words – as ‘a passionate plea for peace.
Juliet West is the author of BEFORE THE FALL a devastating tale of love and betrayal set in London’s East End during the First World War.