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IMG_8480.CR2Vera Brittain’s mem­oir Test­a­ment of Youth is a heart-rend­ing les­son about the First World War and its effects. As you read, gobsmacked by the forces that swoop in and pluck off everything and every­one Brit­tain loved, her out­rage — at injustice and pre­vent­able death — informs every step of her story. Aged 21 in 1914, she begins young adult life crav­ing edu­ca­tion, pulled towards pas­sion­ate romance and deep fili­al love, with the determ­in­a­tion to break con­ven­tions and do some­thing in the world. By the end of the war it is only the last of these drives that remains untouched (indeed, forged) by unbear­able loss.

Although Brittain’s book unfolds through her own shock­ing exper­i­ences, she gives voice to wider suf­fer­ing, evokes the aspir­a­tions and poten­tial of a gen­er­a­tion of young people, and bears wit­ness to their treat­ment, at the hands of their eld­ers, as disposable.

In the Juli­ette Tow­hidi-scrip­ted film Test­a­ment of Youth, dir­ect­or James Kent turns the first-per­son nar­rat­ive into a drama with Vera as its sub­ject. It’s a sig­ni­fic­ant dif­fer­ence in focus. The cam­era can’t tear itself away from the exquis­ite Alicia Vik­ander, who plays Vera. The mem­oir, a gen­er­a­tion­al cri de coeur filtered through per­son­al exper­i­ence, becomes the story of one woman. Her story is still extraordin­ar­ily dra­mat­ic, but the test­a­ment is thin­ner as a result.

The blue-chip cast includes Domin­ic West, Mir­anda Richard­son, Emily Wat­son and Game of Thrones’ Kit Har­ing­ton, who looks as though he’d be more com­fort­able in a shaggy black Night’s Watch cloak than a waist­coat and white lin­en shirt. Pre-war life is giv­en the full Mer­chant Ivory treat­ment, col­oured with a dreamy palette and quiv­er­ing with sexu­al ten­sion, blue­bell woods and a swoon­ing score.

Fit­tingly, in Vera’s uni­verse the immin­ent arrival of war is less urgent than her drive to apply to Oxford, des­pite her father’s res­ist­ance. Her romantic dilem­mas threaten her stud­ies too, until her boy­friend, close male friend and broth­er are all in quick suc­ces­sion don­ning khaki and head­ing off to France.

The Romantics sud­denly seem far less import­ant than the duty to con­trib­ute, and Vera steps down from uni­ver­sity to become a nurse. We see only a little of what must have been the full, bleak hor­ror of those con­di­tions: waves of injured, lack of sup­plies, patch­ing men up to return them to the Front and so on. Drawn towards great­er risk and suf­fer­ing as the war pro­gresses, Vera trans­fers to France, where she is put to nurs­ing Ger­man sol­diers. This exper­i­ence gives rise to one of Vera’s most import­ant dis­cov­er­ies and the film’s end­ing, but is oddly muted here.

There are some lovely cine­mat­ic moments, for instance where we see the vul­ner­able beauty of a young male body in the time before the war, and occa­sion­ally, as in Vera’s return home, you feel the dir­ec­tion try­ing to evoke mood in fresh­er ways. But the film doesn’t seem to trust image-mak­ing to con­vey the story, or its audi­ence to con­nect with the themes or emo­tions without everything being spelt out.

Per­son­al rela­tion­ships drive the nar­rat­ive, but while the out­come is Vera’s politi­cisa­tion and bru­tal com­ing of age, this pro­gres­sion is not really charted. An adapt­a­tion that cap­tured Brittain’s tone and intel­li­gence, with space made for the social and polit­ic­al, might have been more power­ful than this por­trait of an individual’s losses. When Vera speaks out against the sense­less­ness of war, you wish con­tem­por­ary politi­cians were listen­ing. This is cer­tainly an anti-war movie, but in cleav­ing to unchal­len­ging, pic­tur­esque aes­thet­ics, it pulls its punches.