Testament of Youth is based on the First World War memoir of the same name, which was written by Vera Brittain. The novel has been widely proclaimed as a classic, as it represented the one female voice among a plethora of males ones looking at the war. It has previously been presented as a TV production, but this is the first time it has made its way to the big screen, under the direction of James Kent.
Vera Brittain spent her childhood growing up in a wealthy family, who like most families of the time, expected her to eventually find a man and settle down. She however, has very different plans, instead wishing to go to Oxford to study. Through her own intelligence and force of will she achieves that goal, but just as she starts, the First World War breaks out and her brother, fiance and close friends are dragged into it. Feeling abandoned back home, she decides she needs to help and walks away from Oxford in order to become a nurse and do her bit for the war effort.
As you can imagine, this is not a happy film. People die and life is tough. However, it gives a perspective on the war that we very rarely see, at least not in this depth. This focuses on the people left behind and while there are shots of the front, they are few and far between. Instead we see Vera deal with the fact that life in Britain goes on, her fellow nurses still gossip and laugh, and she can’t deal with the fact that she has to stay at home. Alicia Vikander plays that perfectly. She has a constant nervous energy to her, as she awakes each morning terrified of what she might hear that day. She also does a remarkable job with the accent, to the extent that I was unaware she was actually Swedish until the film ended. I’m sure if you go back and analyse in-depth it will slip on occasion, but on a standard watch through, I saw nothing wrong with it.
Elsewhere, Kit Harrington finally steps out from Game of Thrones and rubbish like Pompeii to show himself as a strong actor. His character, Vera’s fiancée Roland Leighton, is charmingly lost in the world. Unsure how to deal with this new relationship and an obvious romantic at heart. However, when he goes off to war and returns as a different man, Harrington has no problem depicting a person who has been deeply scarred by what he has seen. You can see him fighting what appears to be a mild form of shell shock, but that he is losing the battle and it is only with the help of Vera that he is able to get through and find the part of him that he left behind when he first went to war.
More than anything else, this feels like an important film. It shines a light on issues that are often forgotten about the great war and introduces Vera Brittain and her life to a whole new host of people. It is therefore great to see that the film at least comes close to capturing that. It shows a strong, young women trying to find a place in a world that doesn’t quite yet have a place for her and despite all the odds being against her and the tragedy that the date of a her birth insures she must go through, she manages to do that. It’s not happy Sunday afternoon viewing and you will come out feeling emotionally drained and as if you have been through the ringer, but Testament of Youth is still an important film, that you should see.
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