We don’t need movies to tell us war is hell. But at their best, they humanize its unfathomable losses in a way that history books never quite can. Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) stars as real-life memoirist Vera Brittain, a privileged young Englishwoman whose idyllic world is shattered by the onset of WWI. A blossoming feminist with writerly ambitions, she abandons a hard-won spot at Oxford to follow her brother and his friends (including the aspiring poet Roland, played by Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) into combat the only way she can: by becoming a battlefield nurse.
Director James Kent gives early scenes a paradise-lost glow, undoubtedly to draw extra contrast to the filth and gore of the front lines. And though it’s all beautifully shot, the film’s best visual asset is Swedish actress Vikander. Not just because she’s gorgeous—outfitted in creamy pinks and blues and maroons, she looks like a long-stemmed peony—but because she lets every nuance play across her endlessly expressive face: love, fear, anger, heartbreak. Lost youth is easy to idealize; her testament makes it feel true. A–