Testament of Youth (2014)

Testament of Youth (2014)
  • Time: 129 min
  • Genre: Biography | Drama | History
  • Director: James Kent
  • Cast: Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington, Hayley Atwell, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Joanna Scanlan


Testament of Youth is a powerful story of love, war and remembrance, based on the First World War memoir by Vera Brittain which has become the classic testimony of that war from a woman’s point of view. A searing journey from youthful hopes and dreams to the edge of despair and back again, it’s a film about young love, the futility of war and how to make sense of the darkest times.

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  • Testament of Youth opens with Alicia Vikander’s face as her inscrutable gaze observes those around her. Hers is an almost inconceivable beauty, and she is possessed of a talent that marries technique with emotion. Having already given one of the best performances thus far this year in Ex Machina, she delivers another superb turn as Vera Brittain in this wartime romance.

    The film begins on Armistice Day, the 11th of November 1918, when the Allies of World War I and Germany agreed to end the war, but quickly rewinds four years earlier to the summer of 1914. Vera, her beloved younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Victor (Colin Morgan) are enjoying a dip in the lake. Vera is well-to-do but headstrong. She’s angry at her parents (Dominic West and Emily Watson) for gifting her with a piano when that money could have secured her a whole year in Oxford. Her father is concerned that her independent spirit will prevent her from finding a husband. “I’m not getting married. Not now. Not ever,” she declares. It is at that moment that Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) enters their home and starts on the path to win her heart.

    Vera is distant at first, but is moved by Roland’s encouraging words when she shares her writerly ambitions. Theirs is a sweet and gentle courtship conducted under the watchful eye of her chaperone (Joanna Scanlan). There is a remarkably tactile quality in these scenes – one keenly feels the touch of one fingertip lightly brushing past or Roland’s sudden grip of her arm as they steal away some moments – and these and other memories are what Vera holds onto when Roland, Edward, and Victor go off to war.

    Vera, feeling her studies unimportant in light of the war, enrolls as a military nurse and experiences firsthand the horrific effects of war. Testament of Youth is a resolutely, but not detrimentally, old-fashioned work. First-time director James Kent does not shy away from the romantic or melodramatic flourish, but he executes them in such a way that the result is both intimate and epic. He includes a Gone With the Wind-style crane shot that sees Vera standing in a field blanketed by bodies of the dead and wounded. It is as piercingly effective now as it was nearly a century ago when Scarlett O’Hara stood on similar ground. Vera and Roland have the requisite, tear-filled farewell on a train platform – yes, they are our main focus, but Kent reminds us that Vera and Roland were only one of the thousands of couples separated by war.

    Juliette Towhidi’s judicious adaptation of Brittain’s best-selling memoir avoids becoming too reverential of its heroine or too preachy about the needlessness of war. Vera would go on to become one of the most famous pacifists of her day, but the filmmakers and especially Vikander present Vera’s awakening with unromanticised clarity.

    The cast is beyond reproach. Egerton, Morgan, and Harington make for charismatic presences, all of them carving out fine portraits of boys trying to become men. Miranda Richardson as Vera’s prickly professor and Watson as her bourgeois mother etch differing but equally effective portrayals of the female figures in Vera’s life. West gets a devastating scene as her father, barely able to contain his despair at seeing his only son off to war. Vikander appears in nearly every frame of the film, anchoring Testament of Youth with a complex and riveting performance. Vikander continues to astonish. Hers is a face and talent worth watching.

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