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In 'Testament Of Youth,' A Nurse Tells The Story Of World War I


War films are usually about men. They're often about heroism, brotherhood and perseverance. The new film "Testament Of Youth" takes a different view. It's based on a famous antiwar memoir published in 1933. It was written by a young woman named Vera Brittain who had served as a nurse tending to gravely wounded servicemen in World War I. She set out to tell the story of those left behind. The film weaves in her personal letters to her fiance, a soldier at the front.


ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Vera Brittain) Please don't keep things back from me, Roland, with an idea of sparing my feelings. I shall never be afraid to confront the real. The imagined holds far greater terror for me.

CORNISH: Vera Brittain is played by actress Alicia Vikander.

VIKANDER: I remember when I read the book, I mean, I knew the facts of the war. And I've read about in school, and I've seen documentaries and films. But I was amazed how into her emotions and feelings and how true she was telling her own experience and story. That really made me feel the bigger picture.

CORNISH: The film opens before the war with a teenage Vera swimming in the English countryside.

VIKANDER: I also, you know, am about eight years older than what Vera was in the beginning of this film. So I had to kind of remind myself to be really young and naive and think that the world is ahead of you and you can do anything. And, you know, she spoke before thinking, and she was quite pigheaded. And I wanted to kind of bring that.

CORNISH: But, Vikander says, Brittain was also an empowered woman with a remarkably modern perspective. In one scene, she confronts her parents when they buy her yet another expensive present.


EMILY WATSON: (As Mrs. Brittain) Your father hoped you'd be happy, dear.

VIKANDER: (As Vera Brittain) That piano could pay for a whole year at Oxford.

DOMINIC WEST: (As Mr. Brittain) Oh, here we go.

VIKANDER: (As Vera Brittain) And all this time, you said you couldn't afford for me to go.

WEST: (As Mr. Brittain) No, I can't afford to waste money, no.

VIKANDER: She fought to get into Oxford, and she wanted to study English. She wanted to be a writer. Then the war broke out, and suddenly, she actually gave up, in one way, her biggest dreams because she felt like she, like all the men and all the other - most of young people at that time in England, you know, she wanted to actually do something.

CORNISH: Brittain's years as a nurse caring for dying British and German soldiers woke her antiwar consciousness. But her activism also came from deeply personal losses. Both her fiance and her brother were killed, and in the film, she rallies her countrymen to remember the personal cost of war.


VIKANDER: (As Vera Brittain) Perhaps their deaths have meaning only if we stand together now and say no - no to killing, no to war, no to the endless cycle of revenge. I say no more of it.

CORNISH: Alicia Vikander says her performance required a physical transformation. She has to change from an idealistic student to a grieving young woman and a public figure. But Vikander says just speaking as Brittain was a challenge. Vikander is Swedish.

VIKANDER: I remember someone told me that they had seen a very old interview on YouTube, and they were like, but you sound American in that. And they were like, why have you changed? And I was like, why don't you do your own accent? And I was like, I don't know what my own accent is 'cause I wasn't born with this language, and because of the work I do, I kind of have to change all the time. So sometimes you feel a bit (laughter) lost of not - trying to find your own voice, I guess.

CORNISH: Several filmmakers are signing up Alicia Vikander for exactly that chameleon-like ability to disappear in her roles. From "Testament Of Youth" to her breakthrough performance as a sleek robot in "Ex Machina," she's having a banner year. Vikander trained at the Royal Swedish Ballet School and had roles in Swedish television before appearing in her first English-language role in a recent adaptation of "Anna Karenina."

VIKANDER: And suddenly, I realized if you just - if you do your best and try to get the language right in English, you suddenly have a chance to do work in so many other countries and on such a bigger scale.

CORNISH: The role of Vera Brittain in "Testament Of Youth" is Alicia Vikander's biggest international role to date. The film opens in the U.S. this weekend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.