Violets where his mangled body lay

This is my review of Testament of Youth [DVD] [2014] [2015].

It is probably an advantage not to have read Vera Brittain's celebrated First World War autobiography on which this film is based, since it means one can come to it without inflated expectations. Born into a prosperous Edwardian household, strong-minded Vera battles to be allowed to apply for Oxford where, in 1914, women are permitted to attend lectures but still not take degrees. Despite her intention to avoid the conventional path of marriage she falls for one of her brother Edward's friends, Roland Leighton who like her has ambitions to write, in his case as a poet. When war is declared, all the young men of her acquaintance who are fit for service feel honour-bound to enlist. Since Edward has supported her case for Oxford, she returns the favour by arguing fiercely for her father to let him join up, finding the clincher she may live to regret, "Let him be a man". A stint as a nurse on the Front opens her eyes to the chaos and waste of war.

Seen mainly from Vera's viewpoint, the course of events is saved from intolerable sadness by moments of humour and fascinating touches of period detail. There are telling situations such as Roland's behaviour when he returns on leave, masking his preoccupation with the horror of war behind a mixture of bravado and moodiness. Many moving scenes compensate for others which seem a little wooden, but perhaps the latter reflect accurately the "stiff upper lip" restraint of the period. Also, in keeping closely to Vera Brittain's text, the film may have become too restricted as a drama.

Since "Testament of Youth" was an early exposé of the futility of war, it is perhaps surprising that it was not made into a feature film long ago. Its power has been somewhat diminished by our familiarity with the facts, but there is still particular poignancy in Vera's experience of World War One, and it is an effective introduction for anyone finding out about it for the first time.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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