Based on the celebrated memoir of Vera Brittain the grandmother of Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Shirley Williams, Testament of Youth’s story begins over an idyllic summer in Derbyshire in 1914. Vera (Alicia Vikander), her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), and friend Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan) are passing the time before high school graduation. Children of privilege, the only real strife on the horizon is the conflict between Vera and her pragmatic father (Dominic West) over her hopes to study English at Oxford University.
A pinch of spice is added to this mild stew of domestic drama by the arrival of Roland Leighton (Kit Harrington), another friend of Edward,. Leighton shares Vera’s ambition to become a writer and has already been accepted by Oxford. After no small amount of coaxing by Edward, Mr. Brittain relents and allows Vera to take the entrance exam. At the same time, despite constant intrusive chaperoning, she and Roland are falling in love.
So far, so very Downton Abbey. This appears to be a return to the Merchant-Ivory school of British filmmaking – a poised and handsome drawing room romance among the English upper classes. But there is a dark shadow falling not only over Vera and her friends, but over all of Europe. Just as she and Roland are preparing for Oxford the Great War breaks out.
Fired up with patriotism for the Empire and duty, the young men all immediately wish to volunteer for service. Roland is especially eager and pulls strings to ensure he is accepted and sent to the front. Edward begs Vera to repay his efforts to persuade their father to allow her to study by now persuading him to allow Edward to enlist (something Mr. Brittain dreads). Ultimately of the three male friends, only Victor is left behind, rejected due to his poor eyesight.
As it becomes ever clearer that the war will not be over before Christmas, Vera gives up her studies to become a nurse and sees first hand war’s terrible effects. As the carnage in the fields of France escalates (something subtly shown through the rapid increase in newspaper column inches devoted to listing the dead) even Victor is conscripted. The engine of the war machine has a voracious appetite for fuel burning mercilessly through a generation.
Testament of Youth is a superb example of a home front war film, firmly based on Vera’s viewpoint the horrors of the front are kept at a distance seen in the wounds of the men sent back to England, alluded to in letters from the three friends, seen in the haunted gaze of men home on leave. Vera is a character on a journey from naivety to knowledge, but it will be gained through a series of sudden and shattering events.
When Vera answers the call for nurses to tend the wounded just behind the front lines, the film does eventually travel to the killing fields across the channel. This leads to a sequence pushing the envelope of a 12A certificate (parents should be aware that the BBFC warning about ‘injury detail’ is not to be taken lightly).
The first half of the film has minor pacing issues; I thought it a mistake to open with a scene of Vera in distress struggling through celebratory crowds as the ceasefire is declared, followed by the standard ‘a few years earlier’ caption. This accentuates impatience with the pre-war section of the film, and creates false expectations of where the ending will come (the film is far from over when this scene comes round again). However this is a minor complaint, while there is perhaps a little too much time spent on Vera and Roland’s courting process (amusing as the scenes of chaperoning are) when the film kicks up a gear it becomes an extremely gripping and ultimately moving story.
There are a number of weighty themes in addition an anti-war message (Vera Brittain would go on after the war to become on of the leading pacifists of the age), the film deals with issues of female emancipation, the nature of service, citizenship, and sacrifice. It does all of this through its central character, excellently played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander.
It would be entirely unfair to say that the script (by Juliette Towhidi) and Vikander make Brittain unsympathetic, but they do not try and make her ingratiating. Brittain is always defiant, always strong willed, but in early scenes sometimes to the exclusion of good sense. Her ‘journey’ is one that reaches a powerful and political defining moment in a speech to a rally calling for reparations to be demanded from the German people. It is a terrific performance, but one that may be seen as cold by those who prefer their pills sugar coated.
Among the larger cast there is good work from both Egerton (soon to be seen playing working class in Kingsman: The Secret Service), Morgan (looking uncannily like Ben Cross here), and solid support is offered by West and Emily Watson as Vera’s parents. Game of Throne’s Harrington is not required to do a great deal more than be dashing and romantic, but he does this efficiently.
There are several significant smaller parts, Miranda Richardson plays Vera’s English tutor at Oxford, Johanna Scanlan (The Thick of It) is Vera’s chaperone, and late in the film there is a fantastic turn by Hayley Atwell as a front line nurse. Scanlan brings some rare light relief to what is a necessarily sombre film, but the comic aspects of Atwell’s character are of a darker hue. Atwell plays her character as a psychotically cheerful head girl, raising brief visions of Enid Blyton’s Five go to the Somme. Of course what initially seems jarring character is this person’s peculiarly English way of coping with the horrors of a field hospital.
Testament of Youth is mounted with impressive scale by director James Kent who has a background in television drama and documentary. Kent’s use of the widescreen frame is impressive, one outstanding crane shot (no doubt digitally enhanced, but not noticeably so) evokes a very famous scene from Gone With The Wind and does not come away from the comparison bloodied. Despite the epic sweep of the tale, the film is often remarkably subtle; in particular one scene involving a deceased soldier’s letter to another has real emotional weight while not making their relationship explicit.
Handsomely shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy, the film looks like cinema rather than television. The design department have ensured the period details are convincing and Max Richter supplies a typically fine score. It is a great, great pity that this film is already being lost in the clamour of awards season, it is perhaps a little too grim where other lesser contenders in the period drama stakes are more obviously life affirming.