It’s almost surprising the world of film didn’t make a few more movies to tie into the centenary of the start of the First World War. However Testament Of Youth is an apt tale to make a new version of at this time, as rather than being a gung-ho war story, it is more about grief and the wiping out of swathes of young lives.
Based on Vera Brittain’s memoir, the movie follows Vera (Alicia Vikander) as a free thinking young woman determined that her path in life will not just to be a wife and mother. She heads off to Oxford (after a little resistance from her father) and almost surprises herself when she falls for a handsome young man called Roland (Kit Harington). However their seemingly idyllic youth, along with that of her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and their friends, is disrupted by the War.
The young men head off to foreign fields, initially leaving Vera behind. However she decides it shouldn’t just be the men doing their part and she enlists herself as a nurse, and soon discovers that the horrors of war are a very long way from her privileged youth. It also becomes increasingly clear to that not only is she is in real danger herself, but there’s a good chance the men she knew before the war – including Roland and her brother – may never make it back at all.
Brittain’s book is an incredibly powerful evocation of grief and war as something that is not just about carnage of a grand scale, but millions of individual moments of horror and anguish, both for those on the battlefields and those elsewhere. James Kent’s film does manage to capture that, even if it’s sometimes a little clumsy in getting there.
The opening section in particular is a little too much, to the point where its fastidious cleanliness, precision and determination to present pre-War life as being almost perfect, begins to get close to feeling like a parody of 1980s Merchant-Ivory movies. However when the film actually head off to war it starts to work a lot better, helped tremendously by Alicia Vikander, who holds the whole thing together with an expertly pitched performance. Indeed, if it weren’t for her the whole thing might have seemed rather over-earnest and even a tad hackneyed. Almost by force of will Vikander and the rest of the cast hold things together in the face of too many shots that are determined to look artful – complete with diffuse lighting and studied camerawork – rather than tell the story.
Testament Of Youth does pull itself through though, even in the face of a 130-minute runtime that sometimes feels like it’s stretched to breaking point. Ultimately the sheer power of the story ensures it’s sometimes pretty moving and worth watching. In fact it’s sometimes such an incredible story that if it weren’t based on the truth it would sometimes seem a little far-fetched.
There has in the past been talk of Vera’s brother Edward and whether he was gay. Many believe that he probably was, but this is largely based on supposition and the vaguest of hints in Vera’s writing that she was aware her brother may not be the same as most other boys (although it seems clear that if Edward was gay, he never told anyone close to him, although he may have fallen for another soldier of a lower rank during the wat). The film decides to tread a fine line with this, occasionally hinting that Edward may be more interested in men than women, while not actually saying it. Although that could seem like whitewashing, in the context of the story and what we unambiguously know about Edward and how he acted around those who knew him, it was probably the right tack to take.
Overall Verdict: Although overall Testament Of Youth should be judged a success, it’s a little too enamoured with the idea of itself as a classic British period drama to actually become one. However Alicia Vikander is superb and should have a great future in film.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac