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.

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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.

3.5/5

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