Vera Brittain's writings shaped Alicia Vikander's approach to 'Testament of Youth'

'There was something wonderful working with Alicia. She is such a fierce actress on screen': Kit Harington

Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" and Erich Maria Remarque's "All Quiet on the Western Front" chronicled the devastation of World War I — from the male point of view.

"Testament of Youth," Vera Brittain's powerful 1933 autobiography, offered a female perspective, the insights of a woman who witnessed the horrors. After losing loved ones, Brittain abandoned her studies at Oxford to become a nurse and to tend to soldiers — including German POWs — for the remainder of the war. She became a noted pacifist when she returned home.

Her memoir was adapted into an award-winning 1979 BBC miniseries that starred Cheryl Campbell as Brittain and aired on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre." The first feature film version opens Friday, starring Swedish actress Alicia Vikander ("Ex Machina") as the indomitable heroine. Vikander earned a British Independent Film Award nomination last year for her illuminating performance.

"It's such an amazing story," said Vikander, who worked with a dialect coach to perfect her British accent. She had read a lot about the First World War but hadn't seen the conflict from a female perspective until she read Brittain's book. "It is such a story about youth."

Brittain, director James Kent said, is "tricky to like" because she is so opinionated, but "that stands her in good stead when the cards are against her." She was a pioneer in women's rights and, Vikander noted, fought her parents to advance her education.

In his film, Brittain "wants to earn a place in the world," Kent said. "She wants her voice to be heard. That's been a struggle for gays, black people and women. How do you get the right to be heard? That's her journey"

"Testament of Youth" is also heart-on-your-sleeve romantic thanks to the palpable chemistry between Vikander and "Game of Thrones" Kit Harington as her fiance, the brilliant aspiring poet Roland Leighton, who enlists in the army.

"We absolutely clicked," Harington said. "There was something wonderful working with Alicia. She is such a fierce actress on screen."

Though Vikander read "Testament of Youth," she relied on Brittain's published diaries and correspondence with Leighton, her brother and two friends who were soldiers.

"Testament of Youth," Vikander said, was written by a mother at age 30, looking back on her life and trying to put into words how she felt at 15. By contrast, the actress said, "the diaries and the letters are actually written by the woman of the age I was playing. The letters and the diaries were direct link to what she was like back then."

While shooting battle scenes, Harington often contemplated if he could have dealt with the war.

"I thought maybe if I grew up in that generation, I could have," he said.

But probably not today.

"There was one point in the filming when I was lying in the field soaking wet and freezing," Harington said. Though costumed girls provided a hot towel and tea, he was was still miserable. "There as a moment when I stepped back and thought, you are doing this in controlled circumstances for one day, and these men went through this heavy gun fire and threat of death every day for four years."

Brittain died in 1970 at age 76. Her daughter Shirley Williams, 84, is a noted British politician and educator.

"I was invited by Shirley Williams to high tea at the House of Lords, where she still works as a politician," Vikander said. "I was terrified and didn't sleep that night."

Vikander recalled Williams saying, "You're the Swedish girl playing my mother."

"She was so sweet, and we spent the afternoon talking about her mother," Vikander said. "She and her family came on the set. It meant a lot to me."

susan.king@latimes.com

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