This is a cinematic and beautiful movie: James Kent’s superb rendering of Vera Brittain’s memoir of the physical, emotional and social damage inflicted on an entire generation by World War I. Kent carefully creates a mood of romantic nostalgia and let’s Swedish actress Alicia Vikander glow in the lead role. It’s a moving coming-of-age love story, sticky with the personal fallout that comes with news from the trenches.
Brittain (Vikander) is a vivacious and idealistic young woman who turns 21 as war breaks out in Europe. With dreams of being a writer, she manages to gain entry to Oxford against the wishes of her father (Dominic West), only to find that women are treated with less than appropriate dignity. When her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), fiancé Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington) and two best friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Geoffrey (Jonathan Bailey) sign up to fight for King and Country, Brittain postpones her studies and joins the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse. After training in London, Brittain is sent to Etaples near the front line, a witness to the dreadful injuries inflicted on young soldiers – both Allied and German. She manages to stay in touch with the four young men in her life – writing constantly and meeting for brief moments to try recapture the untroubled innocence of their pre-war lives. The overwhelming atmosphere of loss and obliteration both intensifies Brittain’s feelings towards Roland and begins her journey as a pacifist.
It was more than 15 years before Brittain published her account of these formative years as a young woman, such was the devastating impact of events. It’s a deeply personal account and director Kent – with an excellent screenplay by Juliette Towhidi – captures that impact from Brittain’s sensitive and courageous point of view. Vikander is flawless in this role and the lush cinematography and production design help build a powerful atmosphere of tragic British romanticism at a time when 5% of the population had been killed or wounded. In this the 100th anniversary of the conflict, there could be no better reminder of the heartbreak of war and the significance of a force for the non-military resolution of conflict. As Brittain wrote after the war about the nature of the past “perhaps the means of salvation are already there, implicit in history, unadvertised, carefully concealed by the war-mongers, only awaiting rediscovery to be acknowledged with enthusiasm by all thinking men and women.” Lest we forget.