Talking Movies

January 15, 2015

Testament of Youth

Alicia Vikander stars as Vera Brittain in a harrowing adaptation of her celebrated memoir of love and death in WWI.


In the pre-war idyll we meet Vera (Vikander) swimming with her beloved brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and her diffident suitor Victor Richardson (Colin Morgan). She is furious when she discovers Edward has been distracting her to allow the installation of a piano, a present from their father (Dominic West) designed to take her mind off going to Oxford. But Vera is determined to sit the entrance exam, and the support of Edward and Edward’s school-friend Roland (Kit Harington) forces Mt Brittain to allow her try. She makes an unfavourable impression on Miss Lorimer (Miranda Richardson), the don running Somerville, but wins a place. Her joy is short-lived. Roland, driven by duty, volunteers as an officer; and Edward follows suit. Soon Vera herself volunteers, as a nurse; and the horrors she witnesses only increase her need to get nearer the front.

Initially this film of Testament of Youth feels in the shadow of Parade’s End, owing to the superficial resemblance of a suffragette falling for a man defined by his sense of duty who volunteers for the trenches as soon as war is declared. And the domestic sphere is of great interest: Vera throws over Victor for the more antagonistic Roland, who is the son of a famous writer Mrs Leighton (Anna Chancellor), but must still settle for the conservative chaperoning of their walking-outs by Aunt Belle (Joanna Scanlan). Vikander is nicely steely and abrasive as Vera, a woman given to speaking her mind and expecting people to listen. Harington is a good foil as the man she initially misjudges, but who has unexpected depths. Hayley Atwell’s cameo as a nurse is wonderful, the only true comic note in the film.

Director James Kent steps up from the likes of The Thirteenth Tale for the BBC for a handsomely mounted period drama that becomes almost unendurably sad by the end. This is partly because of his very clever casting which makes you feel the trauma of war’s losses. Along with Journey’s End, Goodbye to All That, and All Quiet on the Western Front, Testament of Youth was one of the artistic responses to the war that shaped perception of the conflict. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi, previously best known for adapting Cecilia Ahern’s Love, Rosie, shows a sure hand in balancing Vera’s growing despair about the war with the Anglican mysticism of Edward’s friend Geoffrey Thurlow (Jonathan Bailey) towards the slaughter. Kent and Towhidi fashion a heartbreaking visual metaphor by a montage of silent shots of familiar places with the characters now absent…

Testament of Youth is an impressive film largely because of the mounting emotional effect of the successive disappearance of everyone Vera loves. By the end she really is, as someone suggests, surrounded by ghosts.


October 4, 2013

How I Live Now

Saoirse Ronan impresses as a sullen teenager facing up to WWIII, but worryingly once again her performance is better than the film that contains it.


Caustic American teenager Daisy (Ronan) arrives in Britain, travelling as an unaccompanied minor. Well, unaccompanied except for the competing voices of self-help mantras and hyper-critical judgements in her head. She is collected from the airport by her English cousin Isaac (Tom Holland) illegally driving a Range Rover home to their isolated farm where Daisy meets Piper (Harley Bird), who’s frightfully excited at having a substitute big sister, and neighbour Joe (Danny McEvoy), who prefers their home to his abusive father’s. Daisy swoons over a dishy falconer (George MacKay), glimpsed as they drive past him, only to discover that he’s her cousin George. Aunt Penn (Anna Chancellor) is distracted by government worries over possible terrorist attacks and so Daisy has to adjust to her cousins’ irritatingly bohemian lifestyle. But by the time apocalypse comes proceedings are all very early Ian McEwen…

How I Live Now is a very well made film. Last King of Scotland director Kevin McDonald gets very natural performances from the child actors even as his oblique portrayal of nuclear apocalypse gets increasingly brutal. Some of his visuals are simply stunning. The detonation of a bomb in London sees the shockwave preceded by a tsunami-like moment of eerie calm and atmospheric reverse and then a magical fall of snow as the sky darkens. And driving thru the deserted motorways of England recalls 28 Days Later, as do the brutal eruptions of violence in rural camps and an extended suspense sequence when Daisy and Piper investigate a deserted army base for signs of what happened. However the lack of detail grates when you’re expected to swallow not just nukes and poisoned reservoirs but, somehow, massive mobilised armies of terrorists.

Ronan edges slightly towards her role in Hanna towards the end, but, especially initially, she’s doing something new. She’s playing a far more abrasive character than any she’s essayed before and doing it very well. Indeed the film’s so good at upsetting audience expectations as to its genre that it’s a while before you notice that it’s gradually forgotten the hyper-critical voice in Daisy’s head that was presented as the key to her character in the opening act, and then sporadically later on; when planning her trek home. The most troubling element though is not the implication of possible inherited schizophrenia that is literally dispensed with when the shooting starts, but that we’re expected (even down to the tagline on posters) to root for Daisy to get home so that she can continue an incestuous relationship with her first cousin

How I Live Now is too solidly well made a film to not be given 3 stars but its central romantic motif makes it hard to truly like it.


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