alicia vikander, colin morgan, dominic west, emily watson, film review, game of thrones, hayley atwell, kit harrington, miranda richardson, period drama, pompeii, testament of youth, true story, world war one
I went to see Testament of Youth (2015) last weekend. The film wasn’t playing at the cinema in my town, so it was quite a trek to go to see it! However, it was completely worth it: Testament of Youth is an intelligent, moving testament to courage, love and the indomitable spirit of its heroine.
We begin on Armistice Day, 1914. A shattered young woman in a beret (Alicia Vikander) stumbles through the cheering crowd to take refuge in a quiet church. Flashback to her life pre-Great War: Vera Brittain is a strong-willed but mostly carefree girl enjoying an idyllic summer with her brother Edward (Taron Edgerton) and his friends Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Kit Harrington). Vera is fiercely resistant to her parents’ conventional aspirations for her and hopes to study at Oxford. However, even as the determined Vera prepares for the entrance exams without a tutor and develops a tentative romance with Roland, the oncoming war threatens to tear apart their whole way of life.
Vera begins as a precocious, blunt and somewhat spoiled girl with dreams of attending Oxford (still a somewhat unusual move at the time). When her brother and fiancé enlist, Vera refuses to stay at home and becomes a nurse, another unconventional choice. Sheltered Vera is thrust into a world of conflict, blood and death.
Her courage and endurance in the face of so much suffering is truly inspiring
Based on Vera Britten’s bestselling memoirs of the same name, Testament of Youth’s greatest strength is its unflinching honesty when depicting the war. It conveys a generation’s loss of innocence (as well as the loss of thousands upon thousands of young men) without ever resorting to cheap sentimentality or easy tear-jerking moments. Any film whose subject matter is a large scale conflict (Gone With the Wind and The Boy in Striped Pyjamas both spring to mind) has to find a humanising viewpoint on the colossal loss of human life. In Testament of Youth it’s the irrepressible Vera Brittain, brought to life with honesty and conviction by the radiant Vikander.
There is also a strong supporting cast of mostly home-grown talent; Dominic West as Vera’s curmudgeonly father, Hayley Atwell as the most British of superintendent nurses and Miranda Richardson as a crotchety Oxford don. Kit Harrington also gives a far more nuanced performance as Vera’s forlorn fiancé than almost any previous role. That’s probably because Harrington is actually allowed to act rather than mope about showing off his six pack as in Game of Thrones and particularly Pompeii (2014).
Director James Kent’s documentary experience helps keep the film grounded in reality. Apart from the occasional overly abstract flourish which was distracting, the film is rooted in Vera’s world, and all the mud, rain, sea and blood that went with it. Testament of Youth’s visceral cinematography pulls you into the environment whether you want to go or not.
Even if, like me, you’re completely unfamiliar with Britten’s memoir, Testament of Youth does re-tread familiar ground: pre-war merriment, lingering looks at train stations and lines of wounded soldiers stretching out before our eyes. However, even though you know when watching Vera’s friends chase each other through the British countryside that most, if not all, these boys are doomed, that doesn’t make it less moving.
Testament of Youth conveys the price of war far more effectively than any documentary and, judging from the number of wars still going on today, it contains some lessons we still need to learn.
Despite having very positive reviews (85% on Rotten Tomatoes last time I checked), the film hasn’t received nearly the amount of attention it deserves. It’s definitely a must-see, and I urge you to watch it as soon as you can!
Other Film and TV articles:
Watch my review of Sense and Sensibility (1995) here.
Read my interview with the writer and director of The Theory of Everything (2014) here.