Note: Guides from our archive are in a slightly different format and have been edited here to make them more user-friendly. This guide was written by Hannah Rowe.
It’s the golden Edwardian summer of 1914 and Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is excited about what the future holds. After persuading her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) to let her sit the entrance exam and tutoring herself, she has been offered a place to study at Oxford and will soon escape provincial Derbyshire. Her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) is also Oxford-bound along with school friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Kit Harrington). Vera and Roland, both aspiring writers, have been in correspondence with one another over the last few months and are falling in love. But as they embark on a heavily chaperoned courtship, the bells of war begin to toll and their worlds are turned upside down. Roland immediately turns down his place at Oxford to enlist and is soon joined by Edward and Victor. Vera moves to Oxford alone but after a while finds it impossible to study in the context of war. She surrenders her hard-won place at Oxford to become a nurse.
Day after day the newspapers list pages upon pages of the dead, and it becomes apparent that the war is not going to be as brief as everyone first thought. Vera’s nursing takes her to the western front where she witnesses the devastating cost of war on both sides. As she nurses captured German soldiers the seeds of her future pacifist thinking are sown. Will the Armistice come soon enough to save Vera’s loved ones and will she be able to find any hope in the devastation left by war?
- What was your initial response to the film? Did you enjoy it, and why, or why not? What did you find particularly interesting about it? If you’ve read the book how did the film compare?
‘For a filmmaker to get a mainstream audience into a film, if it’s a harrowing film, you have to offer a way out for people. One of the things I could do was to make it at least a beautiful film so that they could sink into it without thinking: Oh my God, is it going to be two hours of this?’ – Director James Kent
- How does Testament of Youth ‘offer a way out for people’? How successfully does it balance its portrayal of the devastation of war with the beautiful and idyllic? To what extent is it appropriate for films with a harrowing topic such as war to be visually beautiful?
- Which scenes in the film did you find particularly moving? How did the story help you to emotionally connect with the experiences of those who lived a hundred years ago?
- What did you make of the character of Vera? How would you describe her, and how does she grow and change throughout the film? How did you react to her relationship with Roland?
‘I think cinema is increasingly important about remembering [sic] these really calamitous events, partly because it’s a great access point for all generations to watch movies as opposed to documentaries. But I also think that it does something that documentary can’t do, which is to really emotionalise what it is to suffer day by day through an experience like that.’ – Director James Kent
- In what other ways has the centenary of the First World War been marked? What role do narrative films have in commemorating the war, and what can they bring that other commemorations – such as documentaries – cannot? What limitations might narrative film have when it comes to commemorating the First World War?
‘I’m simply concerned you’re turning yourself into a Blue-stocking. That’s no way to find a husband.’ – Mr Brittain
- What path do Mr and Mrs Brittain, and the wider society of their time, expect Vera to take? How is Vera’s life different from that of a contemporary woman of a similar age, and what parallels are there, if any? What value does Vera place on education? To what extent has the wider availability of education made us complacent about its value?
- Why do Roland, Edward, Victor and Geoffrey all feel such a strong sense of duty? Do you think that this would be a pervading mind-set if a war were declared today? Why, or why not? What outcomes, both positive and negative, could a sense of patriotic duty have?
‘Here I am, dear Edward, fighting to save German soldiers that just a few miles away you’re trying to kill.’ – Vera
- How does Vera come to view the German soldiers as being the same as the English? What moral implications does this have for her? What part might ‘fear of the other’ – a belief in the strangeness of the enemy – play in perpetuating a war?
We have to work twice as hard as men. We have to be twice as good to prove that we are worthy of degrees.’ – Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson)
- In what contexts might modern-day women have to ‘work twice as hard as men’ in order to prove themselves? How is gender inequality being combated in our society? Can we learn anything from Vera’s approach to the subjugation of women?
‘All of us are surrounded by ghosts, now we have to learn how to live with them.’ – Winifred Holtby (Alexandra Roach)
- How do Vera’s wartime experiences affect her, and what helps her to live with the ‘ghosts’ of those she’s lost? On Armistice Day she wanders into a church and witnesses women praying; how might belief in God have been challenged by the war, and why might those women have been driven to prayer on the day peace was declared?
‘Perhaps their deaths have meaning if we stand together and say ‘no’. No to killing. No to war. No to endless cycles of revenge.’ – Vera
- Is Vera’s conclusion the only way to bring meaning to the deaths of those killed in war? Can a war ever be just, or are they always ‘endless cycles of revenge’? What, if anything, might make peace possible in the world?
- Why is it important that we don’t forget those who lost their lives in wars? In what ways can we continue to remember them? How might we make sure that their history shapes our future?