Director James Kent drags English heritage cinema though the horrors of the First World War in the most recent adaption of Testament of Youth, based upon Vera Brittain’s best-selling memoirs of the same name. Known to be a classic piece of 20th century feminist literature, the film focuses on that which Brittain depicts so incredibly; the civilian life of a young woman during war at a time when women were fighting for their voices to be heard.
Testament of Youth is a beautiful film and deserves to be recognized for its attention to detail in all departments, from costume to locations. All of these elements are in service of its story, which is a very grim coming of age tale about the war time nurse Vera Brittain. Her transition from girl to woman is not a particularly pleasant one as it traverses a life that is swamped in loss and tragedy. From this however, we get a truly inspiring individual in Brittain, whose early life is depicted throughout the film. Brittain now serves as a historical icon that symbolizes the incredible women of the time and what they did during the war and how women’s roles were never truly the same afterwards.
Whilst on the cusp of war, England’s youth seem preoccupied with certain newfound freedoms as they oppose their parents (to varying degrees success). Vera (Alicia Vikander), Edward (Taron Egerton) and Victor (Colin Morgan) are struggling with the dawn of adulthood, or more specifically the adulthoods that their parents seem to have meticulously planned out for them.
Vera has her eyes on Oxford despite her father’s hesitations, and knows exactly what she wants and does not want, and she does not want the life that has seemingly been deemed appropriate for her. She dreams of being a writer, a love that Roland (Kit Harington) shares. The two quickly become close, and eventually lovers. When war does break out and the three boys volunteer to go off to war, Vera gives up her place at Oxford (and her dream of writing) to become a nurse and help the war effort.
Considering its source material, Testament of Youth is somewhat underwhelming in its ambition to depict the events of the time, although it does manage to flaunt flurries of occasional brilliance. By having the focus squarely on Brittain’s personal turmoil works in the film’s favor and stays true to the essence of the author’s memoirs. However, by telling the story in this way the filmmakers miss the opportunity to really show the horrors of the subject as, instead, we are given a rather linear and low-key period drama.
Any lack of ambition on the part of the filmmakers is overshadowed by a stellar central performance by Vikander whose portrayal of Brittain is able to slide from exuberant youth to hardened post-war woman without a glitch. A large cast of familiar British faces make up the supporting players, the stand out being Harington who most people will recognize from HBO’s Game of Thrones and will no doubt be shouting “you know nothing!” every time he’s on screen. Some of the most powerful moments are delivered by the supporting cast, with a particularly haunting moment coming from Dominic West as Mr. Brittain receiving some terrible news off screen.
Testament of Youth is a film that hits you with a smacking of emotion, and just when you think that you can’t be hit again, well, you are. It is a film that yanks at your heart strings by means of good storytelling and good character driven drama and it is because of the plight of such a delightful character that we feel such sorrow. Despite any shortcomings, this is a period drama that is telling a very important story about a very special individual.
Testament of Youth is out next Monday on DVD and Blu-Ray.