Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: James Kent
Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Emily Watson, Kit Harington, Taron Egerton, Colin Morgan, Miranda Richardson, Hayley Atwell, Henry Garrett.
Vera Brittain is one of the foremost figures of the pacifist movement of the twentieth century. Her views on the horrors of war and the waste of a generation of young men were formed and shaped by her experiences as a nurse at the front during some of the bloody battles of WWI. Her outspoken views though were not always readily welcomed by a public clamouring for retribution and revenge against the Germans.
This biopic, faithfully adapted from Brittain’s autobiographical novel of the same name by screenwriter Juliette Towhidi (Calendar Girls, etc), is well meaning and earnest, and offers a female perspective on the experience of war and the usual themes of sacrifice, loss and grief. It is visually stunning in the same mold as the films of Merchant Ivory at their peak. But it is also a somewhat dull and oh so typically effete British affair at times.
We first meet Vera (played by Alicia Vikander) in 1913 when she is urging her fairly traditional parents (played by a suitably stuffy Dominic West and Emily Watson) to allow her to study literature at Oxford. This was an era when women were meant to stay at home and look after their menfolk. The times they are a slowly changing, but war clouds are gathering in Europe.
When war broke out in 1914 young men regarded going off to fight for King and country was not only one’s patriotic duty but it was also considered something of a grand adventure. Only when the blood and guts and the horrors of warfare became a harsh reality for a generation did the experience sour. Amongst those heading off to fight were Vera’s handsome fiance Roland (played by Game Of Thrones‘ Kit Harington), his best friend Victor (Colin Morgan) and her younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton, whom we recently saw in the spy caper Kingsman: The Secret Service), whom she worshipped.
The idealistic Vera quits her university post to serve as a nurse, at first at home and then abroad where she witnesses the horror and bloodshed of war up close. She sees the bodies of loved ones, nurses a seriously wounded German soldier and tends to the maimed and crippled.
Veteran television director James Kent makes his feature film debut here and he captures the era superbly with the upbeat mood and this world of polite British society slowly turning sour as the horrors of war sank in back home. He handles the material with remarkable restraint and although he doesn’t shy away from briefly depicting the horrors of war he doesn’t glorify it or revel in it. Subtle moments such as a long list of names of casualties printed in a newspaper, the look of grief and fear on West’s face are quite telling. One long tracking shot as Vera walks through a muddy field full of wounded and mutilated bodies lying on stretchers is reminiscent of a scene from the 1939 classic Gone With The Wind.
Much of the early scenes exploring Vera’s passion for learning, her relationships with her family and the men in her life are a bit dreary and familiar stuff, and the stuff of melodramas and soap opera. Testament Of Youth has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Rob Hardy (the gritty urban drama Broken, etc). The period detail reeks with authenticity, from its superb production design through to Consolata Boyle’s costume design.
We’ve seen quite a bit of Vikander on the screen lately, as the rising young Swedish born actress has had roles in gorgeous period drama A Royal Affair, the dire Seventh Son, etc, but this is arguably her most substantial role to date. She makes the most of the role, bringing both a feisty and quite modern quality to her intelligent and sensitive performance, but also some touches of vulnerability, naive romanticism and bitterness and honesty. Miranda Richardson is good as Miss Lorimer, Vera’s initially disapproving headmistress who slowly becomes one of her staunchest supporters. Watson is not given a lot to do as Vera’s mother, but West gets a couple of emotional moments as her father.