"Stirring, balanced and beautiful ."
There are no winners in war, only losers. There are no glorious victories, only miserable deaths and sad endings. With subtlety and nostalgic pathos, James Kent brings us a story about one young brave woman and the men she lost in the First World War. Based on Vera Brittain’s bestselling memoir first published in 1933, Testament of Youth is the story of that ill-fated war through a woman’s and pacifist’s point of view.
Four years before the 1918 Armistice Day, Vera Brittain (Alicia Vikander) is a young woman whose passion for learning earns her a spot as a student at Somerville College, Oxford. When World War I breaks out, three men closest to her are sent for combat – her brother Edward (Taron Egerton), her fiancé Roland Leighton (Kit Harington) and their friend Victor (Colin Morgan) who harbours an unrequited crush on her. Following their heroism and demise in the battle fronts, Vera leaves college to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment as a nurse tending the wounded and dying in London, Malta and France. After the war, she returns home to participate in another fight – the fight for peace for both the victors and losers.
Testament of Youth is a beautiful marriage of romance and history. It’s historical without being dull and contrite; it’s romantic without being overindulgent and sexual. It is basically a war story yet it spares the audience the horror and violence of rifle shooting and human massacre. Instead, it explores the more horrifying and stirring elements of war – sending people you care for away to battle, waiting for them, caring for the wounded, watching people die and coping with your lost. With its more personal approach, the movie has plenty of little moments that can pick our heartstrings such as the sobbing father, farewell at the train station, daily scrutiny of news bulletin for those who have “fallen in combat,” the dead and wounded on stretchers near the battlefields of France, and Vera sinking in the mud to know how the men felt in battle. Vera’s speech towards the end of the movie is a stand out. Being a nurse who has tended both British and German soldiers, she knows firsthand the agony of killing people and the fear of dying. In bold words, she speaks up for the men who want to go home, reunite with their loved ones, and make peace with the world.
Aside from exempting us from the blood and gore of war, the movie also delivers the story in a relaxed and easy manner. Though most scenes are moving, the film in general is not overly dramatic and overstated. It is neither superficial nor excessive; it is just profound enough to be both mind and heart provoking. It is also not hurried, giving the audience ample time to invest in the characters.
Moreover, Testament of Youth has that faraway vibe. The landscapes and the clothes must have created that effect. In fact, the movie looks very expensive, much more than its production budget of $10 million. The occasional flashbacks may have also contributed in bringing that dreaminess. These moments deal with the love story between Vera and Roland. Harrington’s voiceover as he reads poems brings out both radiance and ghostliness of the flashbacks. However, the film goes out of focus at some points and the vagueness, though stimulating, veers away from the central theme. Understandably, the movie is only two hours long and all the contents of a 600-page memoir may not be possibly crammed into that amount of time.
Other than its technical aspects, the movie also succeeds because of the honest and affecting performances of the cast. Though they only play minor roles as Vera’s father and mother, respectively, Dominic West and Emily Watson exhibit the strength and hidden weakness of parents supportive of their children’s choices. Morgan, who is popularly known for playing the titular role in BBC’s Merlin, is perfect as the shy and subtle admirer and he exudes readiness for bigger and more mature roles. Egerton as Vera’s brother possesses warm sincerity and vulnerability which lets us see into the soul of the man tarnished by war. Harington is a big revelation. He has shown more dimensions in the film, a total diversion from his Jon Snow persona in HBO’s Game of Thrones. But it is Vikander who shines the most. She has already shown how promising she is with A Royal Affair (2012), Anna Karenina (2012) and Ex Machina (2012). Now, she just cemented her stellar talent by bringing us a versatile character who has risen from a stubborn high-society lady to a woman who has stood bravely against the horrors and pains of war.
Lastly, the movie has potentials to be a sleeper hit. It premiered on October 2014 as part of London Film Festival. Its first theatrical release was in the UK on January 2015, with several airings in different parts of the world in the following months. The film appeals to many generations. The memoir and the 1979 BBC mini-series could pull the older demographics while the fresh, handsome and talented actors will attract the young ones.