A star is born without a shot being fired


It’s Armistice Day, 1918. The end of World War I has just been announced and everybody is cheering wildly. But one young woman, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) appears upset about something.

We flash back four years to 1914, to a time when, as Wordsworth put it: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/to be young was very heaven.”

Brittain is swimming playfully with her brother and a male admirer. Later on, when she goes home, she learns her father has bought her a piano.

She’s indignant because she wanted him to use the money to send her to Oxford instead. Shortly afterwards, her Oxford dream is realised, but dark clouds are gathering on the horizon.

We spot an apparently inconsequential headline in a newspaper: ‘Austria in Distress.’ It’s a delicate touch in a film awash with delicate touches: Franz Ferdinand has been shot, war is looming.

This is one of the most moving films you’re likely to see this year. Some of you will view it as a hauntingly beautiful love story and some as a poignant anti-war statement.

This is all very well, but we’ve had so many love stories set in war-time, haven’t we? And, as Robert Altman once said, every war film is, by definition, an anti-war film. So what makes it so distinctive?

The answer, in a nutshell, is Vikander. With her captivating beauty, her sallow skin and her wonderfully expressive nut-brown eyes, she’s almost hypnotic in her appeal.

Her face adorns almost every frame of the film. It’s a face of such faultlessness that one becomes entranced with it in all its vicissitudes: idealism, girlishness, resilience and gloom.

It’s always exciting when a new actress lights up the screen and Vikander definitely does that. Like a Rembrandt painting come to life, she underlines the film›s serenity, its wistfulness, its grace under pressure. Her resolute defiance in the face of everything that life throws at her is the stuff of achingly moving cinema (she also does a pitch-perfect British accent).

Huge care has been taken with every scene in this stylised drama. Not since All Quiet on the Western Front have we had such a stridently argued treatise against war… and all without a bullet being fired. We do see the gruesome effects of trench warfare in all its gore but not once do we hear the report of a rifle or cannon – the first time, I would imagine, a war film has ever achieved this notable feat.

Based on Brittain’s best-selling memoir – a book almost as iconic as the gallant lady’s surname – it has her leaving the groves of academe for the war effort where she becomes a Red Cross nurse before tragedy strikes. Many people will be familiar with the story but what director James Kent has done is transform it into a work of rare visual beauty and style.

I urge you to see this at your earliest opportunity. At the press show, one could hear a pin drop for the whole 129 minutes running time. I imagine public audiences will accord it the same reverence.