A compelling and heartrending tale of love and loss in the time of war, Testament of Youth tells the story of Vera Brittain before, during and after World War One. Sian Brett reviews.
Based on her memoir of the same name, the film follows Vera as she fights for a place at Oxford University, falls in love, becomes a voluntary aid detachment nurse, works on the front line, and strives above all to follow her heart. And what a passionate heart it is too.
The film offers a female perspective on war – the pain of being left behind, the helplessness, the pure inability to help whilst those you love are in a foreign land killing and being killed. And that is what seems to be the most damaging of all – the effect of war on young men’s innocence. In the opening scene we see these boys running free, swimming in lakes and loving freely with open hearts. But as the storm clouds of war loom over what was once a sunny England, their enthusiasm and positivity is replaced by an acute awareness of what one human is capable of doing to another. It’s a heart-breaking thing to watch, and executed beautifully by director James Kent. The sprawling landscapes of fields and beaches at first offer a feeling of freedom, a sense of the ample opportunity that awaits these young Oxford students, but soon take on a new meaning as their youth is lost, stolen from them.
For a film about the First World War the action doesn’t move to France until over halfway through, but this is no bad thing. Instead of a film solely focusing on war from the perspective of the young soldiers, we get a view of war from those left behind: the way a mother reacts, a bride, the rest of England, the way that England responds to a war happening on foreign soil when those they have raised leave to fight in mud and blood and rain. During the hunger and tears and grief and fear, England continued in so many ways, forced only to adapt and move around the hole left by the hordes of young men and boys signing up.
The lead performances from the young cast are simply stunning. Alicia Vikander shines as Vera, a young woman full of passion, anger and despair. The film handles her movement across country, vocation and time with ease. The romance between her and Roland (Kit Harrington) was such that I, a cynic and self-confessed non-romantic, was turned irrevocably into a gooey mess. The intimacy conveyed on screen is compelling, and even allows for comic moments as the pair attempt to lose their chaperone (Joanna Scanlon). The supporting performances by Edward (Taron Egerton) and Victor (Colin Morgan) as a brother and friend respectively are also wonderful, and show the effect of war on different relationships. The scenes of war, when we do get them, hone in on these relationships. The film does not just show the general horror of war, but instead demonstrates the personal, intimate horror for one family.
Although war films are a long established genre, Testament of Youth feels as though it has something new to offer, and never feels tired or repetitive. It doesn’t push too hard to make you feel guilty about being alive whilst the soldiers on screen are dying. It is simply the tale of relationships fractured by war, and what one woman did in these dark times, told through understated but beautiful performances and cinematography that will make you yearn for the British countryside. Brittain’s bravery is astonishing and I hope this film solidifies her memory for generations to come.
Testament of Youth was in cinemas January 16.